Short cut is new challenge to NHS
With the debate on whether the UK should stay in or leave the European Union now getting under way in Britain, there is one little-known advantage to membership which could sway a lot of votes, particularly in this province.
Patients waiting for treatment for certain conditions such as hip and knee replacements or back surgery can opt to have the procedures carried out in another EU country or in Switzerland under a directive introduced two years ago.
While they would have to get approval from their doctors and would have to pay the cost of the procedure up front before claiming it back from Northern Ireland's health authorities, it is an option that will prove more and more attractive as waiting lists here continue to grow at an alarming rate.
So far only 14 people from the province have taken advantage of the directive because it has been so poorly publicised that even many GPs are unaware that treatment abroad or across the border in the Republic is readily available.
Paying the cost of procedures up front may limit its appeal to many people, but given that they can be reimbursed within 30 days of making a claim, it's a burden that many others may be willing to shoulder in the short term.
It says a lot about the state of the National Health Service which the UK pioneered that it has now been eroded to the point where patients will be willing to seek treatment abroad. The NHS since its inception in 1948 has been the envy of many countries around the world with its promise of treatment and care free at the point of delivery. It is still the greatest social gift ever bestowed by any Government in the UK, but is under unprecedented pressures and hence the likely interest in this EU initiative.
Essentially we are reduced to the state where healthcare has become a free market commodity. Due to the pressures on the NHS, patients can now go online and shop around for treatment for eligible conditions.
The tipping point, however, may come if more and more patients opt for this way of skipping the waiting lists and Stormont finds itself unable to fund all the claims being made by those treated abroad. After all, it is lack of funding which is at the root of much of the current malaise in the NHS, both here and nationally. In the meantime many will see this directive as a short cut to better healthcare and no one could blame them for taking it.