Published: 24/10/2002, Volume II2, No. 5828 Page 5

Ministers are pressing forward with plans to involve overseas providers in the NHS in the face of stiff opposition from consultants and scepticism from some providers.

A senior government source told HSJ that ministers will use strategic health authorities' capacity plans to map out waiting-list hot spots and areas in which extra facilities are needed. Many of the gaps will be filled by creating stand-alone diagnostic centres, run by independent providers and staffed by overseas teams.

The exercise - due to take place next month - is seen as a way of bypassing opposition from local consultants, which has so far dogged plans to bring in overseas medical teams to existing hospitals. In the last three weeks, health ministers have held meetings with overseas providers to discuss obstacles to the use of overseas teams, first highlighted in HSJ in September.

An invitation-only workshop will take place in London tomorrow to work on the government's plan to use independent providers to set up diagnostic and treatment centres in the NHS staffed by overseas doctors and nurses.

Tomorrow's workshop was set up by the Department of Health to bring together potential providers and commissioners. Delegates include overseas providers, UK independent healthcare providers, lawyers and representatives from ten trusts and health authorities that have developed projects.

A number of providers interested in either building or refurbishing DTCs and then providing overseas medical and nursing staff have confirmed to HSJ that they will be attending. They include Germedic and German Medicine Net, Swedish company Capio, and USbased Amsurg. Up to 15 providers from France, Belgium, Switzerland and other European countries have been invited, along with UKbased BUPA and BMI Healthcare.

But some overseas providers are sceptical the NHS can move fast enough to make projects viable.

One told HSJ: 'I cannot honestly say I am optimistic.' Another doubted the NHS had the 'courage' to go forward with the experiment.

The Royal College of Surgeons has also made clear that its reservations about overseas clinical teams would extend to DTCs staffed by overseas doctors.

College guidance issued in July asked members not to take responsibility for any part of the care of patients treated by such teams. 'Our position on DTCs operated by overseas teams would be the same, ' said a spokesperson.

Tomorrow's workshop will be based on the DoH's Growing Capacity prospectus, sent to overseas providers in June. It sets out the government's vision of 'trail blazing' units providing highquality care at a competitive price, using medical staff from overseas.

The DoH will handle procurement but service contracts will be held locally. Bob Ricketts, head of capacity and choice at the DoH, told HSJ: 'This meeting is about bringing together the UK and international providers with trusts where there are capacity gaps to see how much of a match we have in terms of proposals. We are not at the competitive stage yet.'

He confirmed that capacity plans, due to be completed by SHAs by next Thursday October 31, will be shared with providers to avoid wasting time and to help them sharpen their proposals. The DoH wants to see the DTCs up and running as soon as possible, certainly no later than April 2005 and ideally as early as 2004-05, he added.

But while overseas providers will be expected to compete for patients, they will be offered some protection.

The DoH will underwrite volume commitments to the new DTCs for a period of time, as long as the contractor meets it commitments. Some central funds will be available to ease start-up, and overseas-funded DTCs will be exempt from the 'payment by results' set out in last week's policy paper.