When Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, announced last year that NHS patients could receive treatment abroad, it prompted a scramble among Europe's private hospitals to get their hands on Department of Health cash.
If the scheme goes to plan, as many as 100,000 NHS patients will receive their treatment abroad, cutting waiting lists dramatically in the process. About one million people are waiting for operations on the NHS.
Operations Abroad, run by Kenneth Taylor from the town of Stockport, Cheshire, is just one of the companies vying for a slice of the lucrative business generated by this new, NHS-funded "health tourism".
Mr Taylor signed an exclusive deal with the Interbalkan European Medical Centre in Thessaloniki, Greece, to act on its behalf when negotiating with the NHS. His company would like to send as many as 25,000 NHS patients there. But while Mr Taylor has pushed hard for a deal, the Department of Health is trying to keep Operations Abroad and other companies like it at arm's length until pilot schemes in countries closer to home are evaluated.
Mr Milburn's new directive is being piloted by three health authorities on Britain's south coast. The testbed authorities were chosen for their proximity to the Continent and for the ease in transferring patients from the authorities by train via the Channel Tunnel to France and Germany.
The first group of "guinea pig" patients were sent nine days ago to Lille in northern France. The experiences of those nine patients will be evaluated alongside further trips abroad. The next country on the NHS horizon is Germany, but hospitals in Greece, Spain and Belgium have all shown a keen interest. Malta, Turkey and even Tunisia are also reported to have thrown their hats into the ring.
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