x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Britain's National Health Service sets up shop in the UAE

The public system is hoping to follow the success of overseas universities that have opened branch campuses in the UAE and other nations. The cash-strapped agency hopes to generate new revenue by selling its services and expertise.

Yousef Alahmed has his eyes checked by Dr Chris Canning, an ophthalmologist and medical of Moorfields Eye Hospital Dubai.
Yousef Alahmed has his eyes checked by Dr Chris Canning, an ophthalmologist and medical of Moorfields Eye Hospital Dubai.

The UAE is among the countries in which Britain's cash-strapped health service is aiming to generate new income by setting up offshoots of leading hospitals.

Following the example of western universities with campuses in the Arabian Gulf, such as the Paris-Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi, the National Health Service (NHS) hopes to exploit what the British government calls its "word-class reputation".

A number of London hospitals will lead the drive to establish centres internationally or build on existing links, which already include projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

One, Great Ormond Street, which presents itself as a "global centre of excellence in child health care", provides training and support for paediatric services in Dubai and Kuwait. Another, Moorfields Eye Hospital, has a presence in Dubai.

The UK government agency set up to promote overseas projects will also try to sell services to other countries. China is said to be keen to develop partnerships with British hospitals, and other target areas are Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Libya.

The agency, Healthcare UK, is the product of cooperation between Britain's health department and the commercial arm of the foreign office, known as UK Trade and Investment.

"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," said British health minister Anne Milton.

Ms Milton said it was also good news for the economy, which would 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," she said.

Some British hospital trusts and private hospitals already attract patients from abroad, although they and similar establishments in Germany now face strong competition from France, which believes it can significantly undercut their fees.

There has been speculation that the attempt by Healthcare UK to market NHS internationally could benefit from the goodwill gained from staging a successful Olympic Games.

This may be far-fetched, although the NHS did receive valuable publicity with references to its achievement in the spectacular opening ceremony seen by a global television audience.

The NHS, with an annual budget of about £100 billion (Dh584.92bn) is described by Healthcare UK as Britain's most valuable asset, with "unrivalled expertise in proving outstanding care and … a world-class reputation for excellence".

Officials said it made good sense for individual hospital trusts to use its products, technology and knowledge to earn money they could then reinvest in patient care. No part of the NHS would be forced to participate and not every hospital would wish or have the capacity to do so.

Healthcare UK cited the example of the Moorfields unit in Dubai, which it said allowed staff to share their expertise with the aim of improving ophthalmology services.

The British government's idea is not without its critics. Any change affecting the NHS is a sensitive issue and one patients' lobby group raised concerns that this would be a distraction from the "core purpose" of the NHS, to care for patients in the UK.

"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," Jamie Reed, a shadow health spokesman, told the BBC.

"Under David Cameron [the prime minister] we're seeing a rampant commercialisation of the NHS. He needs to get a grip and start focusing on patients, not profits."

But ministers and officials insist no project will be approved if it could affect health care in the UK.

crandall@thenational.ae