OBJECTIVE: To estimate, in a metropolitan accident and emergency (A&E) department, the annual cost of treating overseas visitors whose countries of origin do not have reciprocal arrangements with Britain. METHODS: The study was retrospective. A 24 h period (00.01 h to 24.00 h inclusive) on consecutive days in consecutive weeks (that is, Monday in week 1, Tuesday in week 2, etc) was costed over 52 weeks (1.8.92-31.7.93 inclusive) and extrapolated to 365 days. All visitors between those dates were divided into eligible (from countries with a reciprocal agreement) or non-eligible (from countries without a reciprocal agreement). Costs were calculated for medical and nursing care, investigation and treatment, and fixed costs. RESULTS: The annual St Mary's Hospital A&E budget for the study period (01/08/92 to 31/07/93) was 2,612,200 pounds; the average medical and nursing cost per major or minor case was 66.88 pounds and 20.08 pounds respectively. Investigation, treatment, and fixed costs were 16.31 pounds per patient. In total 2704 non-eligible patients (498 major and 2206 minor cases) were treated at a cost of 121,705 pounds (95% confidence interval 114,234 pounds to 129,176 pounds), which was 4.7% of the total annual budget. CONCLUSIONS: The cost of non-eligible patients to the NHS is substantial. One possible solution would be for visitors from countries which do not offer subsidised emergency treatment to British nationals to purchase health insurance compulsorily on or before entry to Britain. The revenue could be used to improve standards of care for all A&E patients.
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