French hospitals and clinics hope to cash in on the good reputation of their medical care, highlighting state-of-the-art facilities and short waiting times to health tourists from around the world.
Waiting times can be considerably less – two weeks for some operations which have a nine-month wait in the UK where a study shows 200,000 people are waiting longer than 18 weeks for NHS surgery.
The foreign and health ministries are actively seeking to boost the sector with a brochure called ‘Getting Medical Treatment in France’ (tinyurl.com/get-med-france) detailing treatments and locations.
They are making it easier to obtain visas for medical reasons, and improving the welcome for foreign visitors to hospitals with dedicated services and specially- trained personnel who speak English.
Two hospitals near the English Channel have signed deals to treat NHS patients. UK doctors can refer patients there as they can to any hospital in the UK, with the hospitals’ details and waiting times integrated into NHS information systems.
Calais hospital director, Martin Trelcat, said “The Foreign Ministry is keen we develop medical tourism.
“Germany has €2billion in turnover a year and we barely have €200million – considering the reputation of our health system they, and the Health Ministry, think we could go further so we’re encouraged to take the initiative.”
The move is beyond, and separate to, EU rules which allow people to travel for care, and it would not be affected by Brexit.
British patients sent to Calais from the UK pay nothing – the bill goes directly to the NHS and the care is at the same rate as those charged by UK hospitals for their work. The deal relates to planned surgery, not emergency treatment which is covered by reciprocal EU rules subject to the Brexit negotiations. Mr Trelcat said the difference in waiting times, which can be a couple of weeks in France for an operation that could be nine months away in the UK, would “really make the difference to patients from the UK”.
“As well as that, the hospital is new. We offer a high level of comfort, and free parking, and are closer to people in south-east Kent than some hospitals in the London area.
“There aren’t waiting lists in France, perhaps because we have more than enough capacity, and there are no quotas for how many of a certain kind of operation we can do.”
In Paris the health authority AP-HP, which covers 39 public hospitals, recently launched a new range of tariffs for overseas patients (around 30% more than prices to residents) for some 70 conditions for adults and 40 for children. The rates are all-inclusive and standardised to avoid confusion with complex issues of French healthcare costs, and must be paid upfront.
In all of its 12 hospital groups a doctor and an administrator are tasked with looking after visitors from abroad.
Private firms are also looking to capitalise on health tourism. Carine Hilaire, a founder of one such conciergerie médicale (or ‘medical facilitator’), France Surgery, said: “We help people with their stay who would otherwise be a bit lost in our system.
“We are in contact more and more with both expats who have moved here and those who are coming from abroad because they do not have access to good quality care where they live.
“We put them in touch with the right specialists and institutions and organise their stay by finding the right hotel near the clinic and post-operative care with nurses and physios etc.
“We have built a network to provide this in cities and use centres of excellence, not just hospitals but private clinics, sometimes because they have a high-level of skill in a particular area.
“We had 200 patients from abroad last year, but it is increasing. We have been building our links with other countries, to create a relationship of trust.”
Ms Hilaire added: “More people are mobile now and looking on the internet for good surgery and access to the latest technologies.
“At the same time more people think they can make a business from this. But we are looking after patients and need to be ethical – so we think more regulation is needed so people are safe.
“On our side we are working with European associations on certifications for this, including the International Medical Travel Journal in the UK.”
She confirmed that a big plus for Britons is short waiting times. “There are more and more, especially retired people who want their surgery quicker, because they are suffering.”
She said treatment costs are set by providers, and vary depending on their dépassements (fees over and above basic state ones) and any additional charges for patients from abroad. “We can provide several estimates,” she said.
Under EU rules the NHS will fund planned treatment in France up to UK levels if it is a kind the NHS covers and the patient has a doctor’s letter saying they would have to wait months in the UK – however it is unknown whether this would be the case after Brexit, Ms Hilaire said.
The service is also attracting Americans who cannot afford the high fees in the USA.
While the medical tourism trend could be good for hospitals’ coffers, unions are concerned in case it harms the service offered to the French, if rich travellers were prioritised.
Christophe Prudhomme of CGT Santé told journalists: “Health isn’t a commercial service – we can see the inequalities in countries where it is a commerce, like the USA.”
However the Fédération hospitalière de France claims the country has the means to absorb demand without harming services. In Calais Mr Trelcat said there was plenty of space for now and no set limits on how many British people they could treat.
“As we’re a new hospital we’ve got some space to take British patients. Bearing in mind we’ve invested a lot in our outpatients’ services recently we have beds available for those who need to stay a few days,” he said.