Some of Britain's best known hospitals are being lined up by the Government to export the "NHS brand" around the world and set up profit-making branches overseas in order to boost their incomes.
Under a radical plan to be launched this autumn, officials from the Department of Health and UK Trade and Investment will come together to act as a "dating agency" between hospitals that wish to expand overseas and foreign governments with demand for British health services.
The move could see outposts of famous hospitals such as Great Ormond Street, the Royal Marsden and Guys' and St Thomas' appear around the world. All profits made by British hospital trusts abroad would have to go back into their coffers in the UK – and upfront investment could only come from the revenue they make from private patients.
Areas of the world identified as key to the success of the project include the Gulf, where British medical brands already have high recognition, China, Brazil, Libya and India.
Some in the health sector warn that at a time of significant financial constraints, hospital trusts should not be taking their eye off the ball in the UK by exploring potentially complicated and risky overseas investments.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: "At a time of huge upheaval, when waiting times are rising and trusts are being asked to make £20bn of efficiency savings, this is another concerning distraction. The priority of the Government, hospital trusts, and clinicians should be NHS patients."
Recently, British ambulance trust managers visited Libya to advise on emergency care. Trade officials believe there are significant opportunities for contracts to run or advise on healthcare in the country.
"It's about the NHS ethos in a different culture," the Health Minister Lord Howe told i. "We think this is the right way forward".
His ministerial colleague Anne Milton added: "This is good news for NHS patients who will get better services at their local hospital as a result of the work the NHS is doing abroad and the extra investment that will generate.