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Are you ready to assess a patient’s eligibility for free treatment of non-urgent care?

I have just come back from a holiday to the United States. As most foreign travellers do, I was tooled up to the teeth with health insurance in case disaster struck.

Luckily it didn’t, but one couldn’t escape the horror stories of the medical provision over there – such as ambulance crews demanding proof of payment before they take a bleeding person to hospital.

This really brings home the beauty of our own NHS, for all its faults; the ability to access healthcare free at the point of need seems a quintessentially British, civilised way of doing things.

So the new rules for immigration checks from NHS England drive a coach and horses through our beloved system. From 23rd October it will be a legal requirement for health providers funded by the NHS to check patients’ identity, assess their immigration status and review whether they are eligible for free treatment for non-urgent care. Those not eligible could be charged.

GP practices are exempt from the new checks but it will be a requirement for all community and secondary health services. Although there are existing procedures to check patients and charge appropriately depending on their immigration status, the new rules are more extensive, covering community healthcare services, and place a legal requirement on these services and hospitals to carry out these new processes.

Doctors say this could lead to the most vulnerable in society being neglected and unable to access health services due to the cost.

The checks will add a layer of administration to busy waiting rooms and appointment schedules. A seemingly non-urgent condition could deteriorate and become more pressing, meaning a person could be waiting longer for treatment and their health could deteriorate due to these checks taking up staff’s time.

Hospitals could face a compensation backlash for not treating patients, especially if a person’s illness does get worse.

With concerns of a ‘winter crisis’ already, hospital doctors are under extreme pressure due to funding cuts, increased waiting lists and cancelled operations. Front-line workers need enhanced training to implement these new checks, and professional interpreters on hand to support patients who don’t speak English.

Bolt Burdon Kemp has pursued negligence cases for foreign patients whose native medical records were not interpreted correctly, and who had medical accidents because they were unable to understand their doctors and give informed consent.

Although the government is keen to crackdown on so-called ‘health tourism’, it is vital that the most vulnerable in our society are not neglected, and that doctors are fully supported with the resources and training they need to provide the best treatment.

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