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Exporting the NHS 'brand' overseas?

British hospitals are being encouraged to sell their services abroad. But Healthcare UK, created to oversee this move into the foreign market, won't reflect the real NHS 'brand', rooted as it is in the human right to health.

Lara Brearley
4 September 2012

Dubai Health City, pictured, includes a branch of London's Moorfields Eye Hospital

With all the hype – and criticism – last week around the announcement of Healthcare UK, I was surprised to see nothing that questioned whether this initiative truly promoted the ‘brand’ of the NHS. I first thought it was an issue of semantics – what does ‘brand’ really mean? As a term typically used in advertising, was I just misunderstanding? But I’m not so sure that I am. 

If the brand of the NHS is its reputation, what it is identified as, then my pride in the NHS is the fact that it’s a publicly financed service which provides essential healthcare to all people, free at the point of use. It ensures that access to healthcare is determined by need, not ability to pay. The core principles that define the very fabric of the NHS are solidarity and the human right to health.

A contradiction of values

I don’t think I’m alone on this one. Based on his opening ceremony at the Olympics, I’d imagine Danny Boyle would agree, along with many of those who were watching. Even the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, celebrated these values – universality, free to all, based on need, and social solidarity – in his speech to the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May earlier this year.

From what I can see, Healthcare UK is in clear contradiction of what we value most about the NHS. Exploiting the brand for profit overseas will benefit the wealthy first and foremost – giving access to quality care to those with the ability to pay. This is unfair, and to claim that it reflects the ‘brand’ of the NHS is simply inaccurate. Further, it’s the core principles of the NHS that we should be exporting abroad, to countries where the basic right to health is not met, not private health services that charge user fees – the most regressive form of financing.

An opportunity to promote NHS principles

As Andrew Lansley noted in his speech to the WHA, “Millions of poor people fall ill and die due to diseases and conditions that are preventable and treatable." He continued, “Out-of-pocket costs stop many of these people getting the help they need. The solution is efficient and effective healthcare that does not exclude or impoverish the poor.” 

The Department for International Development (DFID) has done a lot to support countries to develop and implement more equitable health financing policies, for instance, supporting the removal of user fees for women and children in Sierra Leone. With the growing momentum of universal health coverage and increasing numbers of low- and middle-income countries taking steps towards this, the UK government has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the NHS by promoting its principles abroad. Healthcare UK is certainly not the way forward.

This piece was originally published on the Save the Children website. 

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