NHS Patients Make Beeline for Belgium

Belgium has become the most popular destination in Europe for British “health tourists” seeking to escape NHS waiting lists for hospitals that offer cheaper, better treatment. Companies that specialise in sending patients abroad report demand for operations in Belgium has overtaken that for the established favourites, France and Germany. The growing willingness of patients to hop across the English Channel for surgery highlights the government’s failure to rebuild confidence in the NHS despite record spending.

Belgium has the highest concentration of hospitals and doctors in Europe and a global reputation for heart and brain operations, fertility treatment and cosmetic surgery. Prices for private surgery are 20%-50% lower than in Britain and hospital-acquired infections are rare.

“Belgium is undoubtedly the first choice for people in the UK,” said Keith Pollard, director of Treatment Abroad, a company that matches patients with overseas healthcare providers.

Pollard said that of between 1,500 and 2,000 inquiries each month, 65% of cosmetic surgery patients and 82% of those seeking other operations named Belgium as their preference.

Charles Seadon, director of Direct Healthcare International, Britain’s largest operator in the Belgian market, said it treated 1,400 patients a year, compared with 400 three years ago.

“Fifteen years ago, if you had asked a chief executive where he wanted to have his heart surgery, he would have said Switzerland or Germany because that’s where the most skilled surgeons were. Today it’s Belgium,” said Seadon.

Paul Delbaere started Elective Surgery Europe after working on a pilot project to send patients from Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in London to Belgium for surgery.

When the project ended Delbaere set up a firm to link patients applying online to Belgian surgeons and hospitals. “We know waiting lists are still significant even though the government has done a lot of work to bring them down,” he said.

One beneficiary is Christine Guilford, 77, from Oxford, who had a hip replacement followed by a triple heart bypass this summer. “I would not like to have to depend on the NHS,” she said.

Her son Peter, who works in Brussels, said his mother had been told she would have to wait more than a year in Britain. When she travelled to Belgium in May to see a specialist, she was told she could have the operation in two weeks.

“The consultant flicked through his diary and said tomorrow will be difficult and the day after, and then he apologised that he could not do it for two weeks,” said Guilford.

At Clinique Saint-Jean, doctors discovered Christine needed an emergency heart bypass and a six-hour slot was found the next day. Guilford believes it saved his mother’s life.

“I don’t believe the NHS kills people but I wonder how many hundreds of individuals die because they don’t have this kind of vigilance,” he said. He is waiting to hear if the NHS will reimburse the £4,000 costs of the hip replacement.

The European Court of Justice has ruled that patients have a right to reimbursement for treatment abroad when they face “undue delay” at home, although this has not been defined. The ruling followed a campaign by The Sunday Times.