NHS staff numbers reach an all-time high

The UK Department of Health today released it's latest update on NHS staff numbers. It reflects the investment that the UK has been putting into the NHS in recent years, and also has an impact on outbound medical tourism from the UK. NHS shortcomings and waiting times are a significant driver of people seeking elective surgery abroad. In the last couple of years NHS waiting times have come down and there is now an 18 week target which most NHS trusts are meeting.

The number of people working for the NHS has reached an all-time high. After a dip in overall numbers in the previous two years, the annual NHS census showed staffing levels recovered to reach a peak of 1,368,200 in September 2008. This is a 2.8 per cent increase on the previous year and a 27.7 per cent increase compared to 1998.

In September 2008, the NHS employed:
  • 408,200 qualified nurses – up 2.1 per cent or 8,600 on 2007 and up 26.2 per cent or 84,700 on 1998.
  • 25,700 midwives – up 2.3 per cent or 570 on 2007 and up 12.4 per cent or 2,800 on 1998.
  • 34,900 consultants – up 3.7 per cent or 1,200 on 2007 and up 56.4 per cent or 12,600 on 1998.
  • 49,200 hospital doctors in training – an increase of 5.1 per cent or 2,400 on 2007 and up 59.4 per cent or 18,300 on 1998.

The number of people in employment in the UK was 31.32 million in December 2008 which means that 4.4% of the UK workforce is employed in the NHS.

The UK unemployment rate has now reached 6.5 per cent. So, the NHS is quite a good place to have a job!

Will Obama end the American medical tourism dream?

As reported in International Medical Travel Journal this week, President Obama has pledged to cure Americans from "the crushing cost of health costs." His proposed reforms include lower prices from hospitals, salary cuts for doctors, and payment to hospitals by government insurance schemes linked to quality of care not quantity of care. He also wants to give Americans the option of a public health insurance plan. His plans follow a social insurance model which is found in some European countries.

Simplifying the funding structure within US hospitals could also lead to significant cost savings. At present an individual US healthcare provider may have to administer payments through upwards of 700 different providers.

Past research (1) has shown that while the United States spends significantly more on health care per capita than Europeans nations, Europe actually delivers more real resources per capita. For example, Europe employs a larger health workforce per capita and delivers more physician visits, hospital days, and prescription drugs than the United States. Higher prices and administrative inefficiencies account for most of this differential.

Obama's grand plan could end the American medical tourism dream. Introducing what is in effect a publicly funded healthcare system and forcing down prices could remove a key driver for outbound medical tourism from the USA.

The IMTJ's conclusion:

"If Americans are a target market, you need to keep a very close eye on US healthcare reform as it could quickly impact your business. You may even have to change from marketing on price to marketing on quality alone."

...and I tend to agree.

Recent years have seen a bandwagon effect in the medical tourism sector. And it's been a "get it cheap" bandwagon. But for decades medical tourism has been driven by patients seeking better treatment, specialist expertise, and higher quality. Some new market entrants may need to rethink their strategy.

1 Mark V. Pauly, “US health care costs: The untold true story,” Health Affairs, 1993, pp. 152–9.

EU votes on medical tourism directive

Members of the European Union's various committees vote this week on whether to make changes to the EU Directive on cross border healthcare. The Directive aims to provide a framework for patient mobility, whereby patients in one member state will have the right to treatment in another state.

The UK's General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates the country's 230,000 doctors, is running a lobbying campaign to protect Britons seeking healthcare in Europe from what it describes as "dangerous" doctors. the GMC wants the new EU laws to give patients access to the disciplinary history of incompetent clinicians.

Quoted in the Guardian, Paul Philip, the GMC's deputy chief executive says:"The vast majority of doctors do a very good job under very difficult circumstances. However, when UK patients travel to mainland Europe, there is a risk they could be treated by a doctor who is not fit to practise or not fully qualified to give the required treatment."

UK patients have full access to GMC records and are able to check whether a doctor has been disciplined, or is the subject of a disciplinary hearing. The GMC wants doctor organisations in other countries to provide similar patient access to information about their doctors.

In the first 9 months of 2008, the UK NHS paid for over 500 British patients to have treatment elsewhere in Europe. Some patients were also funded by their primary care trusts. It is estimated that another 80,000 Britons funded their own treatment overseas.