Tuesday, August 21, 2012 -High-profile NHS hospitals in England are to be encouraged by the government to set up profit-making branches abroad to help fund services in the UK.
A government agency will aim to link hospitals such as Great Ormond Street with foreign governments that want access to British health services.
Investment would have to be drawn from hospitals' private UK work, but with profits ploughed back into the NHS.
A patients' group said the move was a "distraction" at a time of "upheaval".
The drive, building on an initiative first started under the Labour government, is set to be be launched by the Department of Health and UK Trade and Investment this autumn.
The BBC understands the initiative is unlikely to involve regular district or general hospitals but would target world-renowned hospitals like children's hospital Great Ormond Street, the Royal Marsden and Guy's and St Thomas'.
It would mirror schemes such as that of Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, which in 2007 built a unit of the same name in Dubai.
In 2010, Labour's Health Secretary Andy Burnham set up NHS Global to help the health service make the most of the global market for healthcare and the coalition now wants to build on this.
A source close to current Health Secretary Andrew Lansley emphasised that hospitals would be able to pay for their investments abroad using only revenue generated from their private patients in the UK.
Any profits made overseas would be ploughed back into the health service and so benefit NHS patients, the source added.
The Health and Social Care Act, which was passed by Parliament earlier this year, eased the way for hospital trusts to expand their work in the private sector.
Health Minister Anne Milton said: "This is good news for NHS patients who will get better services at their local hospital as a result of the work the NHS is doing abroad and the extra investment that will generate.
"This is also good news for the economy, which will benefit from the extra jobs and revenue created by our highly successful life sciences industries as they trade more across the globe.
"The NHS has a world-class reputation, and this exciting development will make the most of that to deliver real benefits for both patients and taxpayers."
However, the move was criticised by the Patients Association.
Chief executive Katherine Murphy told the Independent newspaper: "The guiding principle of the NHS must be to ensure that outcomes and care for patients comes before profits.
"At a time of huge upheaval in the health service, when waiting times are rising and trusts are being asked to make £20bn of efficiency savings, this is another concerning distraction.
"The priority of the government, hospital trusts and clinicians should be NHS patients."
Labour began the initiative while in government, but shadow health minister Jamie Reed criticised the coalition's plans.
He said: "At a time when staff are losing their jobs and waiting times are rising, the government's priority should be sorting out the mess it has created in our NHS.
"Under David Cameron we're seeing a rampant commercialisation of the NHS. He needs to get a grip and start focusing on patients, not profits."