A new NHS plan to reduce waiting lists in England will not reduce them until at least 2024, admits the UK government. This will drive those who can afford it to private healthcare and domestic medical tourism, but perhaps not to international travel for treatment.
The latest estimates suggest that 10 million people who needed NHS care did not receive it during the last two years. Six million people – one in nine of the population – are on an NHS waiting list. If all those in need came forward and no action is taken to increase NHS activity, the list could hit 14 million, the NHS plan warned.
A recent analysis published in Healthcare Markets UK stated that traffic to LaingBuisson’s consumer-facing website, Private Healthcare UK, has jumped significantly since December and was up 65% in January this year compared to pre-pandemic levels in January 2020.
Visits to the site have risen after each successive lockdown, but recent traffic has been unprecedented with an average of almost 84,000 users a week by the beginning of February.
This may seem like an opportunity for other countries to target outbound medical travellers from the UK.
However, the problems of worsening waiting lists existed well before the pandemic. With cost of living rises, those who can afford private healthcare or medical travel are also correspondingly fewer. Healthcare Markets UK has anecdotal evidence from private hospital providers suggesting a renewed interest, but preliminary research from LaingBuisson indicates that this is yet to result in a significant upswing in self-pay revenue growth. A lag in currently available figures may be masking pent up demand.
After Brexit, NHS patients no longer have the right to go to Europe for treatment paid for by the NHS. Politics and transport difficulties make it almost impossible for the state to pay for private healthcare abroad.
The NHS expect waiting lists to be reducing by March 2025. The plan promises the creation of at least 100 community diagnostic centres over the next three years to help clear backlogs of people waiting for tests, such as MRI, ultrasound and CT scans. The rollout in shopping centres and football stadiums is already under way.
The NHS report set out plans for an expansion in standalone surgical hubs to fast-track hip and knee operations, as well as cataract surgery. Surgeons say such methods of working can streamline processes, meaning far more same day operations and fewer operations being cancelled, because they are kept separate from emergency cases.
The NHS plan promises a more co-ordinated approach of private care, to make the most of its capacity, in outsourcing diagnostics and operations including those for cancer.
The new plan promises proactive efforts to offer choice to those facing the longest waits. Such patients should be offered the chance to travel elsewhere in the country, with transport and accommodation provided and private hospitals among the options, the plan states.