NHS hospitals are to be invited by the government to set up profit-making branches abroad to raise funds for patients at home and raise the international profile of the health service.
Officials from the Department of Health and UK Trade and Industry will launch the joint scheme this autumn, which will aim to build links between hospitals wishing to expand and foreign governments which want access to British health services.
Under the programme, hospitals including Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children Trust, the Royal Marsden Foundation Trust and Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation Trust could create new branches.
According to reports in the Independent, upfront investment could only be drawn from income received from private patients and any profits made abroad would be channelled back to the UK.
The proposal was reportedly inspired by hospitals in America, including Baltimore’s John Hopkins, opening similar branches abroad.
Health minister Anne Milton said: “This is good news for NHS patients who will get better services at their local hospital as a result of the work the NHS is doing abroad and the extra investment that will generate.
“This is also good news for the economy, which will benefit from the extra jobs and revenue created by our highly successful life sciences industries as they trade more across the globe.
“The NHS has a world-class reputation, and this exciting development will make the most of that to deliver real benefits for both patients and taxpayers.”
But the move was criticised in some quarters.
David Stout, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme he did not share the concerns expressed by critics about a shift in focus away from local services and it was “absolutely right” for the health service to generate income.
He said: “If this initiative diverted attention significantly away from running local health services into work internationally, I agree that would be a problem. But I really don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.
“This is a real opportunity - the NHS has always been very well regarded internationally. We’ve often had international companies, organisations and countries come in to talk about the NHS, about how could we help, but we have never been very systematic about how we respond to those opportunities.”
He added: “The healthcare industry internationally is estimated at four trillion US dollars (£2.54 trillion). If the NHS can help bring in some of that income to both support the NHS locally and UK PLC, if we can see the health service as something that generates income as well as generates spend, I think that’s absolutely right and we should do that.”
But he said any benefit would be “marginal” in the context of the overall NHS budget and added that productivity in the service had to improve.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, told the Independent: “The guiding principle of the NHS must be to ensure that outcomes and care for patients comes before profits.
“At a time of huge upheaval in the health service, when waiting times are rising and trusts are being asked to make £20 billion of efficiency savings, this is another concerning distraction. The priority of the government, hospital trusts and clinicians should be NHS patients.”
Shadow health minister Jamie Reed said: “At a time when staff are losing their jobs and waiting times are rising, the Government’s priority should be sorting out the mess it has created in our NHS.
“Under David Cameron we’re seeing a rampant commercialisation of the NHS. He needs to get a grip and start focusing on patients, not profits.”