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 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 a demand for British health services.
The move could see outposts of famous hospitals such as Great Ormond Street, the Royal Marsden and Guy's and St Thomas' appear around the world. Under the plans, 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, and China, Brazil, Libya and India. Some working 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. "The guiding principle of the NHS must be to ensure that outcomes and care for patients comes before profits," Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said. "At a time of huge upheaval in the health service, 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."
Officials envisage that some NHS trusts would partner with private companies that could provide the capital outlay for overseas projects and would take on the financial risk.
Already, Moorfields Eye Hospital runs an outpost in Dubai while Imperial has two successful diabetes centres in Abu Dhabi. A group of GPs along with Virgin Care and Serco are bidding as a consortium for primary care services in the UAE.
A new cross-government unit is being set up called Healthcare UK, which will act as a matchmaking service between British hospitals wishing to expand overseas and foreign governments, where demand has been identified by trade officials based in British embassies.
The move has, in part, been prompted by the success of American teaching hospitals expanding overseas. John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore last year opened a private medical school and teaching hospital in Malaysia and is involved in partnerships that include managing hospitals and providing clinical consulting in Turkey, Japan and Mexico.
The project stems from the belief that in future, patients in the Gulf as well as rich patients in developing countries, will prefer to be treated close to home rather than overseas. Fearful of losing the valuable private income that generates, the hospitals are acting before other private groups step in and fill the gap.
London is already a world-renowned centre for medical training and the hope is that British-trained doctors could be recruited to the new project without the risk of taking resources from the front line. Some of the Royal Colleges have been involved in early discussions about training and accreditation and this is expected to be expanded.
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 all aspects of healthcare in the country, including scope for British hospitals to rebuild the country's secondary-care system.
"It's about the NHS ethos in a different culture," the Health Minister Lord Howe told The Independent, adding that, preliminary work overseas "has convinced us this is a model that will fly. We think this is the right way forward".
Confirming the announcement, 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.
"The NHS has a world-class reputation and this exciting development will make the most of that to deliver real benefits for both patients and taxpayers."
An official from UKTI involved in the launch said it was part of the Government's drive to encourage areas of British expertise to expand internationally: "We have been slow to realise what an asset we've got in the NHS. Some of our brands such as Great Ormand Street and Moorfields are world leaders but in the past we have perhaps been too insular in not thinking about how we can exploit what we've got."
Chris Canning, medical director of Moorfields operations in the UAE, said it had been pleased by the success of its operations.
"We now have a turnover of £5m and a return to our UK operations of around £500,000 a year," he said.
"We are looking at expansion but we are very clear it will not compromise what we do in the UK."
Medical help: Britain's exported expertise
Where we are:
Moorfields Eye Hospital has established a unit in Dubai, modelled on the London hospital – but with local doctors who have been trained by Moorfields. It now makes around £500,000 a year which is ploughed back into UK services.
In 2009 Great Ormond Street Hospital signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Health in Kuwait, where it pledged to share its experience and staff and to receive and treat Kuwaiti children with cancer. It now sends medical teams to Kuwait on a regular basis to provide assistance and expert clinical advice to Kuwaiti health professionals.
The Imperial College London has established the largest multidisciplinary diabetes facility in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where an estimated 25 per cent of the population suffers from diabetes. The centre was established as part of a framework agreement for mutual co-operation between Imperial and Mubadala Development Company and the model is expected to be expanded to other Gulf states.
Where we would like to be:
The Chinese Government is planning an ambitious role out of primary-care facilities (GP surgeries) across the country. This could provide opportunities for the NHS and private companies for consultancy services and training.
India has a booming private hospital network – and some British patients now travel to India for planned surgery. The Government hopes some NHS hospital "brands" could partner with local companies to get a slice of the growing market.
Much of the country's health infrastructure was damaged in the recent civil war – but Libya has huge oil wealth and is keen to rebuild and expand its healthcare sector. British companies and the NHS are well placed to capitalise on this.
Moorfields is also considering an expansion into oil-rich Saudi Arabia and other hospitals could follow. Saudi Arabia is also keen on expanding its primary-care base.