Should the NHS extend NHS patient choice to hospitals overseas?

With the advent of “Choose and Book”, NHS patients are now offered a choice of at least four providers once their GP has decided that a referral is required. These providers can be NHS trusts, foundation trusts, treatment centres, or private hospitals. Will, at some stage, this choice be extended to include hospitals in Europe and further afield?.

The UK health services are suffering from a shortage of qualified nursing and medical staff, and this is constraining NHS effectiveness in reducing waiting lists. One of the solutions has been to import staff from other countries, but will the NHS turn to exporting patients as an alternative solution? A pilot project managed by Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital has already explored this approach. The project offered mostly elderly patients who had been on the waiting list for more than 6 months, the option of orthopaedic surgery in Belgium. In total, nearly 500 UK patients travelled to the five selected Belgian hospitals for orthopaedic surgery between June 2003 and April 2005. Patients were extremely positive about their experience and the quality of care that they received.

Given the choice of an operation at a UK hospital in three or four months time, or an operation next week in a state of the art hospital in Belgium, India or Poland, how many UK patients might choose the latter?