Health Tourism

Empty Hospital Ward at Hillingdon Hospital, Uxbridge, UK. Photo by Alex @ Faraway
Empty Hospital Ward at Hillingdon Hospital, Uxbridge, UK. Photo by Alex @ Faraway, Creative Commons Licence

Last week, I fell into a long discussion with a group of doctors on the problem of health tourism.  This, they say, is when people visit the UK specifically to take advantage of the NHS for treatment of ailments, major and minor.  In particular, women from Africa who think (or know) that they are HIV-positive will visit the UK in order to give birth.  Their children will therefore receive proper medical care and whatever medicines and retrovirals that the current clinical guidelines recommend.  My interlocutors were of the opinion that this was a major drain on resources, especially in the urban centres where they work.
For the avoidance of doubt, these were not the same medics who held the illiberal opinions of marijuana usage, but I did detect in them a slight note of discontentment.  Not intolerance, yet, but certainly exasperation.
If health tourism is widespread, then such feelings of irritation amongst the medical class are also likely to be common, which is not good.  More to the point, it would mean our health system is being abused, perhaps to the tune of millions of pounds.  Definitely not good.
My hypothesis is that health tourism is actually an extremely localised problem, centred around inner-London.  This is where strong immigrant communities already exist, and where health tourists can stay with British residents while they get their treatment.   If this is the case, then it is clearly a particular challenge for the health service in London, rather than a structural issue for the NHS as a whole.
I have put in a poorly worded Freedom of Information request to the Department of Health to find out what statistics are available.
Why bother, though?  What could we possibly do with this information, when we have it?
Simply put, quantifiable information on such an issue will immediately put it in perspective.  Is it a major abuse of the system that we could correct, or just another example of patient-led inefficiency that we will never eradicate?  My suspicion is that it will turn out to be the latter, something akin to the problem of hypochondriacs, that we know is a waste but nevertheless do not have the heart or the stomach to actually address (turning away pregnant Africans at the automatic doors never feels good).  Either way, it will at least address the mutterings of the doctors who see the issue on the ward floor, but have no sense of whether it is a problem beyond their particular hospital.
Second, it may allow for a rather deft sleight-of-policy at the Department of Health.  If the NHS is indeed providing millions of pounds worth of care to people it does not have to, over and above the call of duty, then they could with some legitimacy put that expenditure into a different accounting column.  They could, perhaps, claim it back from DfID or the FCO as a form of targeted, useful government aid.
Let us not be so naive as to think that my request doesn’t carry some risk.   While I do not believe that such statistics (whatever they may be) will actually inspire xenophobia, it is certainly possible that someone might try to use the figures to further some anti-foreigner agenda.  I’m not sure I know what to do about that, but I don’t see this possibility as a reason not to ask the question.  Better me than someone else, I reckon.
What do you think?
On the Ward in Bbowa, Uganda. Photo by Paul Evans. Creative Commons Licence
On the Ward in Bbowa, Uganda. Photo by Paul Evans. Creative Commons Licence

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