Thursday

2nd Dec 2021

EU patients get new rules on seeking treatment abroad

The European Parliament on Wednesday (19 January) adopted a law that allows patients to seek treatment or drug prescriptions in another EU country and be reimbursed at home if waiting lists are too long or the required medicine is not available.

Left-wing politicians and medical associations warned however that poor patients will be left out in the cold.

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  • Patients waiting for a heart transplant may be refused to seek treatment abroad (Photo: Wikipedia)

"This is a big day for European health, a great victory for patients' rights," health commissioner John Dalli said in a statement.

"Some rare diseases aren't even recognised in some countries, let alone treated," he added. "And small countries often can't offer the same medical services as bigger nations."

The law, which took several years to negotiate, still requires the formal approval of EU's 27 member states and will become operational mid-2013 at the latest.

Under the new rules, patients seeking hospitalisation for more than 24 hours in another member state will need to get prior agreement from national health services.

A patient put on a waiting list for a heart transplant may for instance not be allowed to go to another EU country for a speedier operation, on the grounds that travel is dangerous for his health. A request for surgery could also be turned down if the clinic has a record of in-house acquired infections.

While most political groups in the European Parliament hailed the new legislation, left-wing MEPs denounced the implicit discrimination for poorer people who cannot afford to pay for procedures upfront and then wait to get reimbursed later back home.

"Care is not a commercial, tradable good; it's a basic need for everyone. The new EU directive will mean that insurers drive patients abroad in search of cheaper treatment. But patients - especially if they are seriously ill - just need care in their region, close to their family and a doctor who speaks their language," Dutch Socialist Party MEP Kartika Liotard said.

Health tourism will be a logical consequence of this law, with patients from rich countries able to travel to less expensive countries, where they may be given priority over the local, poorer patients, Ms Liotard warned.

Medical and pharmaceutical associations also flagged up the equal access problem attached to this new piece of legislation.

The Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME), an umbrella organisation for EU's doctors, "would like to have seen provisions ensuring that equal access to information is ensured for all vulnerable patient groups."

Too strong a focus on selling high-end medical equipment at the expense of medical ethics is also "lamentable," the doctor's association said in a statement.

"It is disappointing that the involvement of stakeholders such as healthcare professionals in the development of implementing measures has not been provided for in a more structured way. It is hoped that the commitment to hold "appropriate stakeholder consultations" will be implemented meaningfully," the CPME concluded.

EU pharmacists also highlighted the problems posed by recognising a prescription from another country whose language they can't speak and whose authenticity they can't verify.

"Since the name by which the medicine is marketed and prescribed varies from country to country, the European Pharmaceutical Group believes that in the cross-border context medicine should be prescribed by generic name where possible, if confusion is to be avoided."

Power to the patient

Doctors, it is said, are not what can be called early adopters of new technologies. Any healthcare revolution, then, will have to come through patients. Or rather, consumers, because patients of the 21st century make their own decisions.

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