Primary care trusts may be able to save money on non-urgent procedures by encouraging patients to go abroad, under EU plans to create a Europe-wide free market in health services.

The European Commission was due to publish a draft directive yesterday stating that NHS patients should be able to seek non-urgent treatment in any member state.

The NHS would be forced to advertise patients' right to choose to be treated abroad and create a new department to administer the scheme. Treatment costs would be paid upfront by the patient and then reimbursed up to the tariff by the NHS. The NHS would not have to reimburse travel costs.

Alan Maynard, professor of health economics at York University, predicted: 'This will result in people beginning to migrate around the market a bit more. Those places that can operate below the tariff will be trying to attract patients.'

Professor Maynard speculated that it might be attractive for some primary care trusts to encourage patients willing to take advantage of cheap European flights to go abroad.