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Some people in the United Kingdom are struggling to access routine medical care, including consultations with GPs and antenatal care, because they are wrongly being labelled as “health tourists,” says a report.
The report, from the charity Médecins du Monde UK, analyses the first year's activity of the charity in London, where it set up a clinic in the east end to improve access to health care for vulnerable people in and around the capital.
The group says that regulations introduced in April 2004 to charge “overseas visitors” for NHS hospital treatment is making it difficult for some people who have legitimate rights to NHS treatment to get routine care.
In 2006 a total of 349 people came to the Médecins du Monde clinic for 435 consultations. The most common request was for help to register with a GP. But worryingly, 39 pregnant women came to the clinic, half of whom had had no previous antenatal care, and nearly a quarter of whom were at least 20 weeks pregnant.
Late access to maternity services is a risk factor for maternal death, says the report. But it found that 70% of the pregnant women who had come to the clinic had had difficulties in accessing primary care or antenatal services. At least 30% had not been tested for HIV.
Susan Wright, director of Médecins du Monde UK, said, “Far from the myth of the ‘health tourist,' our clients were resident in the UK and had similar health needs to the population as a whole. The average patient accessing care in our clinic had been resident in the UK for nearly three years and visited us to see a GP about routine medical complaints or to seek antenatal care—not for specialist treatment.”
Instead of saving money, as was intended, the policy is likely to lead to increased costs because “those who are denied care become so ill that they need to access emergency treatment,” she said.
Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust, said that preventing the birth of a single HIV positive baby in the UK by diagnosing the mother's HIV status is estimated to lead to savings of between £500000 (€750000; $1m) and £1m (€1.5m; $2m) in healthcare costs and individual health benefits.
Paul Hunt, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, says in a foreword to the report that “the rules governing entitlement to free NHS care in England, which introduced new and greater restrictions on access to health care for some migrants, seem to be taking us in the wrong direction. The legislation appears to be incompatible with fundamental right to health principles.”
Médecins du Monde, which generally provides health services to people in regions of conflict, poverty, and natural disasters, is calling for the restrictions on accessing UK health care based on immigration status to be removed, especially to maternity services.
“[We] now run healthcare projects in nine other European countries. Many of these countries recognise the rights of migrants alongside the powerful public health and economic arguments for ensuring that they have access to health services. We urge the government to draw upon the experience of other European countries who do not restrict access to treatment—particularly for maternity care and HIV treatment,” said Ms Wright.
In a joint statement, the heads of nine campaigning groups, including Crisis, Doctors for Human Rights, Medact, and the Terrence Higgins Trust, backed the charity's demands.
“Any restrictions on access to NHS health care based on immigration status pose public health problems, violate international law, compromise the independence of health professionals, and are likely to cost more than they save,” they say in a statement. “We urge a return to NHS principles to ensure that everyone living in the UK has access to medical care, free at the point of need.”