Patients travelling to Europe for private surgery as NHS backlog grows

An increasing number of Scots have dipped into their savings to go abroad for private surgery amid huge waiting lists on the NHS.

Patients facing lengthy waits for surgery on the NHS are increasingly travelling abroad and paying for their own treatment at clinics in Europe.

Some people requiring hip and knee replacements have told STV News they feel forced to spend their savings and are taking on debt to go overseas for private operations.

One clinic in Lithuania says they are seeing an average of ten patients from Scotland every month.

The Scottish Government says it is working to address the waiting list backlog.

Eleanor Stafford from Largs never thought one day she would be looking forward to an operation or that it would be in Lithuania.

The 69-year-old has waited 16 months for a hip replacement and, with no date in sight, will fly out in two weeks time for private surgery that will cost her £8,000.

Eleanor told STV News: “Scary is too big a word.

“Yes, I am a bit apprehensive but to me, it makes me feel that after I have had the operation and some recovery period, I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

“I feel my quality of life is very poor. I do not do anything or go anywhere. I do not sleep well as the pain is constant.

“If money were no object, I would have thought about going private here but the difference in cost is phenomenal.

“As I am retired, I will be using savings and borrowing money to fund this treatment. I have borrowed in the past for cars so I see this as borrowing money to get me out of pain and that will be worth it.

“I despair for the NHS right now. All my life, the health service has been there for me but now, I do not feel it is there for me.

“My consultant apologised to me, but I do not blame consultants or NHS staff for these long waiting times. I personally feel they are working right now with one hand tied behind their back.”

In Carmunnock, Moria Edmunds was growing reliant on painkillers and the help of others when she was told the wait for an NHS knee replacement could be three years.

She said: “I have osteoarthritis and my knee became very painful.

“My life was becoming very small, only moving from the sofa to the kettle to my bed. I could not adapt any more. I was just in so much pain and it was very difficult to see a consultant.

“When I saw a consultant last June, I was so overjoyed when he agreed to put me on the waiting list but that quickly changed when I learned how long the wait was going to be.”

Moira Edmunds had a hip replacement in Lithuania

After being quoted around £14,000 for private surgery in Scotland, the retired teacher heard through friends of a cheaper option abroad.

Moira explained: “I said to my daughter I have money, but it is for my funeral and this operation is going to cost £8,000.

“My daughter said ‘Look Mum, the quality of your life is more important, and we will have a whip round if you pop your clogs.’ I could have cried when she said that. I knew then I had to spend the money.”

Once at the Nord clinic in Lithuania, X-rays there revealed Moira did not need a knee replacement.

Moira added: “It was a big shock when the surgeon showed me my pelvis was tilted. He then said to me tomorrow I will give you a new hip and you will no longer have more pain in your knee.

“I had done all my research on what to do after a knee operation so I was stunned to see on the x-ray a crumpled hip no one had spotted.”

She went ahead with the surgery the next day and stayed for ten days of rehabilitation.

She said: “I feel like I have my dignity back again. I can walk upright, I do not have to depend on a stick or other people.

“Four weeks ago, my younger sister fell and broke her hip. She got a new hip within three days and that is the beauty of the NHS, it is there for emergencies.

“But I would have been waiting until I was an emergency and that is a different state of affairs.”

Post Brexit, most NHS patients can no longer be reimbursed for the treatment they received at clinics in Europe.

A new funding route, under the S2 scheme, is at a health board’s discretion.

The Nord clinic in Kaunas in Lithuania is one of several in Europe seeing an influx of British patients, with 80% of those on its operating list travelling from the UK.

Orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Sarunas Tarasevicius says he is treating an average of ten patients from Scotland every month.

He said: “When you are 18 to be told you must wait five years is nothing but when you are 65 or 70, five years really matters.

“We see a lot of patients with arthritis who usually do not have many conservative options to solve their condition.

“To take a decision to travel abroad is not an easy decision, especially if you are elderly so this decision is often taken when the pain is not acceptable anymore.”

Dr Tarasevicius added: “I think you have a brilliant national health service in general except the waiting times.

“You have brilliant surgeons, implants and care delivered in your hospitals, but I think you are just understaffed.”

With an estimated one in nine of the population on a hospital waiting list, the Scottish Government said it’s working with NHS Boards to clear the backlog, exacerbated by the impacts of the Covid pandemic.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This includes targets announced in July 2022 to address the backlog of planned care in our NHS and the delivery of the £1bn NHS Recovery Plan to support sustainable improvements and new models of care such as the National Treatment Centre Programme.”

New national treatment centres in Fife and the Highlands are part of the Scottish Government’s plan to reduce orthopaedic waiting lists and increase capacity. Another is due to open soon in Forth Valley.

David Norris lives outside Callander. He is back on his bike just seven weeks after his second knee replacement. He paid £15,000 to have both surgeries abroad.

The first operation took place within weeks of being told he faced a lengthy wait on the NHS.

“At my age, it is life. What use is a pension to me if I cannot walk?” he said.

The Scottish Government said it is working to address the growing backlog

“I might as well use some of the money saved for retirement to get myself back on my feet. I want a quality of life. I want to be able to sail and go up mountains.”

The 74-year-old said he was originally told by his NHS consultant the wait would be between three and six months but it was a different story when that deadline passed.

“I was flabbergasted when they said ‘Oh I can’t give a date this year and its very unlikely I can give you a date for next year.’ I was very upset.

“If he had told me straightaway, we can’t give you a date, I would have gone private without delay. I feel the most important thing is for the NHS to be honest with patients.

“The whole system is crumbling and stretched. I also believe there is a problem with the protocol used by consultants as they are not even going to offer you a place on their list until you are basically in agony.”

Bobby Park from Fairlie is another patient who says he has not looked back since his private surgery abroad.

The joiner had his hip replacement in December 2021.

Prior to surgery, Bobby could barely walk from his van to his front door. His full recovery from his operation took around three months.

“Now I can’t think of the last time I felt pain in my hip, which is fantastic because in the past, every step I took was pain,” he said.

“I could not in a month of Sundays have lived in that unbearable pain. My wife agreed so we rustled up what savings we had. I have a friend who placed on the NHS list around the same time I was. He is still waiting.”

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