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Patients without borders Patients without borders

January 20, 2011

After years of controversial debate, the European Parliament has approved a law setting out patients' rights to medical care in another EU country. Out-patient treatment will be available without prior authorization.

A hand placing a dental prothesis into an open mouth
Europeans may soon be crossing borders for their denturesImage: AP

Chemotherapy in Germany, a hand operation in France, a new hip in Austria or dentures in Poland: European patients could be about to embark on a globe-trotting future.

Under a ground-breaking European parliament law, health travelers will now be reimbursed for care they receive anywhere in the EU by 2013.

"This is a big step for the patients in Europe," German MEP Peter Liese told Deutsche Welle. "The ruling is particularly beneficial for patients on long waiting lists or those who are unable to find specialists in their own country," said Liese, himself a doctor.

However, while patients in the EU can now benefit from increased mobility, risks of possible malpractice or medical complications in other countries do remain.

"It's a great idea in theory," Wolfram-Arnim Candidus, President of German Patients' Association (DGVP), told Deutsche Welle. "But despite the EU directive, patients should carefully examine the health care standards, costs and liability in other EU nations and make sure their own insurer covers the costs."

Well-informed travelers

Under the new rules, EU citizens must be reimbursed for healthcare they receive in another member state without prior request as long as the type of treatment and costs would also have been covered in their own country.

doctors/nurses in blue scrubs at an operating table
Patients will have easier access to specialists across EuropeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

National health services may request prior authorization for treatments requiring overnight hospital stays or specialized healthcare under the new ruling, but refusal of a request would have to be explained according to a restricted list of possible reasons.

"The ruling is especially important for the small member states that often can't offer the same medical services as bigger nations," said Liese.

EU member states are planning to establish national information centers in order to provide information on treatment, providers and levels of reimbursement across the bloc for patients who are considering seeking treatment abroad.

Hope for patients with rare diseases

Beside these information points, the main advantage for German patients lies in the establishment of a European reference network for rare diseases, according to Peter Liese.

"Wherever possible, it’s not the patient who should travel, but the medical knowledge," he said.

German patients already have the opportunity to have some medical procedures done and paid for by their health insurance in other EU member states. According to the European Parliament, 1 percent of its member states' health budgets are currently spent on cross-border healthcare.

Once the European Council has formally approved the law, the EU's 27 member states have 30 months to make changes to their national legislation.

Author: Dagmar Breitenbach
Editor: Rob Turner