NHS Abroad – opportunity or distraction?

What caught my attention this week is the new initiative by the British government to encourage the NHS to set-up branches abroad in countries like India, China, the Gulf, and Brazil.

Under the terms of this initiative to be launched by Department of Health and UK Trade and Investment, it is understood that renowned hospitals like Great Ormond Street, the Royal Marsden, and Guy’s and St Thomas’ will be able to create profit making branches outside the UK under the NHS umbrella. The expectation is that the investments required to set-up these branch entities can be redirected from hospitals’ existing private operations but the profits will be injected back into the NHS.

It is an intriguing idea, supposedly to be named ‘Healthcare UK’ it sounds very similar to the initiative that was set up by the previous government called ‘NHS Global’.

It was a very proud moment for me to see the NHS and Great Ormond Street Hospital feature in Danny Boyle’s production of the Olympics opening ceremony last month. Little did I realise at that time, that it was a great commercial for the NHS brand for the world to see! What an amazing spectacle that was!

The question in my mind – is this an opportunity or distraction for our healthcare services right now, particularly when there is huge NHS reform underway?

One part of me is thinking that it sounds like a logical extension of the principle that well run successful hospitals should have the freedom to operate as businesses. Healthcare is certainly a global business these days and emerging and developing economies are keen to draw on the finances and expertise of developed healthcare economies to build their healthcare systems. Some successful US healthcare operators like John Hopkins and Mayo Clinic have successfully managed to export their brand abroad and bring back foreign patients to their flagship centres in the US profitably.

It could bring great opportunity for the NHS, if it can learn to compete in the low cost world and bring down the cost of delivering the care without compromising on the NHS quality and outcomes. It would certainly help back home in containing some of the cost pressures.

On the other hand, I am also concerned that if individual hospitals distract themselves in setting up overseas centres, that they will have enough clinical and management bandwidth to manage remote operations with sufficient quality and efficiency, and in the process not damage their own or the NHS’s brand?

I have more questions than answers right now, one part of me likes the idea of ‘NHS Abroad’ and the other part of me is worried that it will be a huge distraction for the NHS when it is already in the middle of a massive reform program of its own!

I am keen to hear your thoughts on this!

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