Mental Health: Mentally ill tourists cost NHS millions

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The NHS is paying out millions of pounds a year on private treatment for mentally ill tourists who are not eligible for free healthcare in Britain.

The NHS is paying out millions of pounds a year on private treatment for mentally ill tourists who are not eligible for free healthcare in Britain.

Health authorities across the UK say mental health patients in this country are losing out on treatment because hospitals are compelled to take foreign visitors who suffer mental breakdowns on holiday.

This highlights the need for reform of Britain's mental health services, which campaigners say are underfunded and in chaos. The Independent on Sunday is campaigning for better treatment for mental health patients.

The problem is compounded by the shortage of NHS beds, which means tourists from countries such as Japan and Australia are sent to private clinics if they are considered a risk to themselves and the community.

At £350 a night for a private bed, NHS trusts are being faced with crippling bills. The worst affected are those that cover London's major tourist areas including Chelsea, Westminster and Kensington.

A report from the Brent, Kensington Chelsea Mental Health Trust shows it spent £1.2m treating patients from abroad and this figure is expected to rise to more than £2m next year.

The trust covers six hospitals which admitted 172 patients between 2001 and 2002, of which 155 were treated privately. In the previous year only 64 patients were admitted and 29 sent to private clinics. In principle NHS trusts can claim the money back from the Government, but in reality many have to wait more than two years to be reimbursed.

The average stay for a mental patient in an NHS bed is three weeks, compared with several months for foreign visitors to Britain.

In some cases, hospitals have been forced to pay for patients to be flown home with nurse escorts because this is cheaper than paying for private treatment.

Statistics from the Department of Health show that as many as 1,000 foreign visitors a year receive medical treatment in this country. No figures are kept on how many have mental health problems.

"The person's healthcare is a priority if they represent a real danger to themselves and the community," said a senior NHS spokesman.

"If you've got somebody who's severely mentally ill, it would be inhuman to present them with a bill as they leave.

"Once they go to the private sector, it's more difficult to get them out and it's in the interest of a private hospital to keep them as long as possible."

He added that the cost to the NHS was flying patients back at least once a fortnight.

"Once every couple of weeks we're sending nurses overseas – we're losing a lot of time with that. Multiply that by all the trusts in London and it's a lot of money being lost from the NHS."

Dr Cosmo Hallstrom is the medical director of the Florence Nightingale Psychological Medicine Centre, a clinic that receives mentally ill patients from NHS trusts.

He says tourists can be in hospital for months because of language barriers and the fact that doctors are unfamiliar with their medical histories. "These patients are often more needy," he said

"If we get medical records, they may be in a language we can't understand. It's overall more difficult, which means the patient stays in hospital longer and that puts a big dent in budgets."

Last week a damning inquiry highlighted the complete failure of psychiatrists and health workers to provide proper supervision of mental health patients. The report into the case of Winston Williams, a schizophrenic who stabbed a young woman, revealed his carers had failed to pick up on the fact he was abusing crack cocaine.

The psychiatrist involved in his treatment has now been prevented from supervising dangerous mental patients and a senior social worker has been suspended from duty.