When Danny Boyle made the National Health Service a centrepiece of his vision for London's Olympic opening ceremony, it left many unsuspecting international commentators perplexed.
As the Los Angeles Times sports writer Diane Pucin put it: "For the life of me I am still baffled by the NHS tribute."
But even though Mr Boyle and the millions who watched his homage didn't know at the time, the world is about to hear a lot more about Britain's favourite acronym. If the Government succeeds in its new mission, branches of famous NHS hospitals will be set up around the world – paid for either by their host governments or fee-paying patients, and providing revenues to bolster finances back home. It is certainly a clever idea. Already the NHS trains doctors from all over the world and the organisation has a good reputation, generally. Hospital "brands" such at Great Ormond Street, Imperial and Moorfields have international recognition and some have already dipped a toe in the water of expansion.
But the devil will be in the detail – and in any such endeavour there will be a lot of it. Not only will the hospitals need to find finance – or partner with a private company prepared to put up cash – but they will also need to negotiate their way round local medical regulations, laws and find customers who want to be treated by them.
Unless the private sector comes in as partners there will also be an element of risk – which in a time of tight budgets back home may give hospital trust boards reason for caution.
But that is not to say they should not try. And as well as full-blown hospitals and treatment centres there are other areas of expertise that the NHS can utilise to make money.
One of the few benefits of PFI is that we know how to build new hospitals and have the expertise in place that can be exported.
Our system of GP surgeries is admired and can easily be copied. And NHS training can easily be replicated abroad. But it may be a while before we see Scarborough General (Oman) opening its doors.
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