More and more appointments for Maltese patients in British hospitals are being postponed or cancelled as a result of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, which shows no sign of abating.
The cancellations come due to increased pressures on the British healthcare system, which has been severely hit by the virus.
Maltese patients with rare or hard-to-treat conditions are often sent for specialised treatment in top NHS hospitals in the UK. Recently, one cancer survivor spoke about what it was like to travel to the UK for treatment during a pandemic. She was thankful for the constant support from the government – but wondered if she could ever look forward to being treated for her condition in Malta.
Speaking to Lovin Malta, a spokesperson from the Health Ministry explained the current situation abroad for Maltese patients beyond potential cancellations.
“The British hospitals are imposing very strict restrictions, hence, patients are not being allowed to have visitors or anyone accompanying them during hospital visits,” she said.
However, she noted that “the risks for patients catching COVID-19 in the UK is no higher than in Malta as the department is doing its utmost to enforce precautionary measures to safeguard the patients and their relatives.”
Patients are referred for specialised treatment abroad after “all local options have been exhausted”.
“Patients who are sponsored by the government for treatment abroad require highly specialised treatment. Most of the cases are cancer patients however patients access treatment overseas for other conditions like cardiac surgery, orthopaedics, ophthalmic, gynaecology and obstetrics,” the Ministry spokesperson explained.
Malta has a strong relationship with UK hospitals; it’s worth noting that leading children’s charity Puttinu Cares even has dedicated housing in London to cater for Maltese children seeking treatment in England’s capital.
“Cases referred overseas require specialised equipment and highly specialised interventions which can be offered in a very few centres overseas,” the spokesperson explained. “Very often cases are rare, hence it would be difficult to retain the necessary expertise due the low number of patients. Centres catering for these patients are few and far between, and even in countries like UK you would only find a centre or two that would offer the service.”
However, there are ongoing efforts to bring Malta’s local healthcare service to this level.
The Health Department, in collaboration with Mater Dei’s Clinical Teams, continuously seek areas where services can be developed locally.
“Clinical Teams are offered training and the Department invests in highly specialised equipment,” the spokesperson explained. “Furthermore, the Department also has arrangements in place where a number of foreign experts visit Malta yearly to carry out clinics and offer treatments and surgeries in Malta.”
These arrangements not only reduce the number of patients who require treatment overseas but also serve as training for Maltese Clinical Teams.
“Along the years,” she continued, “the Department has worked to introduce new services of Cochlear Implants, TACE, Fetal Medicine, Gait Analysis, TAVI, Orthodontic Surgery, Immunology Services, VNS, Gallium Scanning and Neurointerventional Radiology among others. Besides this, the number of visits by foreign experts have increased drastically so that more and more patients can be seen and treated locally.”
With around 25,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccination rolled out locally, and efforts throughout Europe to halt the spread of the virus, it may not be too long before Maltese patients can return to British hospitals whenever they need.
However, being reliant on a foreign nation’s healthcare, especially as that nation moves further and further away from Europe, remains a precarious situation to be in, pandemic or not.