Landmark victory for patient treated abroadEuropean Court of Justice rules for patients

17 May 2006

Patients who wait longer than they should for NHS treatment have won the right to be treated abroad and reclaim the cost from the NHS.

A pair of scissors

The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that the NHS must reimburse patients who seek treatment in Europe if they face an 'undue delay' for surgery at home.

The court ruled that the definition of 'undue delay' shouldn't be based on NHS waiting lists or government targets but on a patient's medical condition.

Hip operation in France

The verdict came in a case brought by 75-year-old Yvonne Watts, who defied the NHS to have a GBP 3,900 hip operation in France despite being warned that her local primary care trust (PCT) wouldn't pick up the bill.

But the judges said it was up to British courts to decide whether, in her case, she had faced an 'undue delay' and if she had, the NHS should pay.

Yvonne Watts was told in 2002 she faced a wait of a year for a hip operation. As her condition deteriorated, that was cut to three to four months. But she decided on swifter treatment a month later in France even though Bedford Primary Care Trust refused to pay for the operation, saying she could be treated on the NHS within the 'appropriate time'.

Medical experts not government targets

The court said the length of time a patient waits for treatment should be decided by a medical expert rather than by government targets.

After the judgment, Yvonne Watts said the surgery had given her a new lease of life and had removed the pain.

She said: 'It was not about the money, it was about the principle. It was about getting my hip fixed.'

Right to treatment abroad

A Department of Health spokesman said: 'Today's judgment clarifies the previously existing entitlement to hospital treatment abroad at NHS expense under certain circumstances. As has previously been the case, we expect to continue with a system that requires any patient who wants to travel abroad for elective hospital treatment, paid for by the NHS, to be authorised to do this by their local healthcare commissioner before they receive treatment.'

Frances Blunden, Which? Principal Policy Advisor on health, said: This decision is good news for some consumers who are waiting too long for treatment, but it's not a blanket go-ahead for anyone who thinks they should get treated sooner. It will depend on the clinical needs of the individual patient. How these will be defined and who will decide on them remains to be seen.'

The government is to update NHS guidance to incorporate the implications of today's ruling.