A few months ago, a friend who lives in London visited his GP with a complaint of persistent headache. The GP advised him some medicines and asked him to follow-up in a week’s time. The head-aches continued and appeared to be getting worse, my friend visited the GP again, who referred him to a Neurologist. My friend managed to get an appointment with the Neurologist after 3 weeks. The neurologist examined him and suggested that he needed a MRI of the brain. A routine appointment for a MRI was given after another 3 weeks.
While waiting for his appointment, my friend had a seizure in his office. He was rushed to the A&E of a tertiary care hospital, an MRI was immediately conducted and a large vascular tumor was visualized. He was hospitalized and his family was informed that the he needed immediate surgery in a delicate part of his brain. The risks of the surgery included death because of uncontrolled bleeding or paralysis. Not operating meant certain death. They had little choice.
If, this would have been in India, my friend would have undergone an MRI the day after he had been advised by his neurologist. The tumor would have been diagnosed right-away and not after he had a seizure. His family would have been given some time to seek another opinion before deciding on surgery. They would also have had the time to visit a hospital of their choice and decide on a surgeon that they would have been most comfortable with. Essentially, this would have been an elective surgery rather than an emergency.
In England, the service was of course cashless at the point of delivery, in India, it would have been cashless as he would have been covered by an insurance policy.
With private healthcare extremely expensive and insurance premiums being very high my friend had no choice but to rely on National Health Service (NHS). This is just one case out of probably thousands who have no choice but to access tertiary healthcare in England through the A&E. The thought itself is scary.
With the issues facing NHS being well-known (and we are again in the middle of a winter when horror stories mount) it is quite a shame that the NHS mandarins haven’t considered outsourcing some of the work to hospitals abroad. The least they can do is offer patients a choice. Something like, ”you can get your bypass surgery done in the local NHS Hospital in 6 weeks or you can travel to a hospital abroad and get the same surgery done the next week. Waiting entails some risks, traveling abroad entails some risks as well and the you can decide what you want.”
The reason that NHS is chary of outsourcing is largely because of the fear regarding the local backlash, which will follow if something ”goes wrong”. And than there is of course false pride that comes in the way as well.
In matters related to healthcare sometimes things will certainly go wrong, the outcomes will not always be the desired ones. This happens in every healthcare organisation including NHS. The key is of course working towards minimizing medical errors. Good hospitals everywhere in the world pay great attention to patient safety and reducing mishaps. They have stringent processes, multiple checks and now great technology that helps bring down medical errors. At Max Healthcare in New Delhi, India, where I work we have an ambitious program called ”Chasing Zero”, which aims at reducing medical errors to zero (or as close to zero as possible!!!). I am sure other hospitals elsewhere too have such process controls, which eliminate errors systematically. NHS can pretty safely outsource some of their work to hospitals, which report clinical outcomes similar to NHS. Additionally, they can set up an oversight mechanism for this outsourced network of hospitals pretty much like what Care Quality Commission (CQC) does to supervise and regulate healthcare services in England.
The NHS will also find that the cost of sending patients abroad for treatment is far less than providing similar services in England. This will be an add-on benefit in times where most Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG’s) are running deficits and the government has limited funds to pour into NHS.
While, this is a sensible solution the biggest problem in implementing something like this is the lack of courage on the part of both NHS as well as the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG’s) and ultimately the political leadership in England. The fear of the unknown and the belief that hospitals outside of Britain/Europe do not offer high quality care (mis)informs such thinking.
In a connected world where patients can be monitored and even operated remotely, this is bizarre. The NHS needs to create an expert group that should evaluate hospitals across the world for their clinical quality, cultural affinity to England, languages spoken, easy connectivity to England and the regulatory environment prevalent in the remote country. It should reach out to these hospitals for collaboration in treating NHS patients, who may opt to travel outside of England for their treatment.
Once the hospitals are identified, NHS should set a tight regulatory frame-work, which allows them complete visibility regarding the care protocols for their patients in these hospitals. If need be they can even post ”care officers” in these hospitals to monitor the care being provided. The MIS related to clinical outcomes should be transparently shared with the CCG’s/NHS. A quarterly review involving NHS/CCG officials and the hospitals should help in smooth operations of the program.
This is quite doable. All it needs is courage, will power and some leadership to effect a change.
PS: My friend had his surgery and a reasonably good outcome. The surgery was quite challenging, took more than 8 hours and was fairly eventful. He had to spend many days in the ICU and a long stay in the hospital. He has no complaints regarding the quality of care he received. His only regret being that this need not have been an emergency.
The views expressed are personal