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Health | Jun 23, 2004

A health tourist in London? I don't think so

NANA OKO AGYEMANG

A British newspaper has accused a Ghanaian man in a coma of cheating the National Health Service. NANA OKO AGYEMANG, in London, puts the record straight.

The poor view of Africa taken by sections of the British media is well known. But a recent furore involving the Right-wing Mail on Sunday has reached very low levels It was rather deplorable at the way facts were deliberately massaged to impugn the integrity of the King of the Asante Kingdom in Ghana in particular and all decent Ghanaians in general.

On 13 June, the Mail on Sunday devoted its front page to the story of an unnamed Ghanaian man who had fallen ill in London in 2001 and had undergone surgery and further hospital treatment.

The newspaper highlighted the fact that the non-emergency treatment had cost £70,000; that the man had 'left Britain without paying his bills'. There is a simple explanation for this: the man never regained consciousness, and was flown back to Ghana, still in a coma, in 2002.

The newspaper also states that the Ghanaian had been visited in hospital by Government minister Paul Boateng and his wife Janet; and that, after the man had returned to Ghana, the Boatengs had been unable to help the hospital in tracing him, to get him to pay his bill. The hospital then approached the Department of Health, who advised that the bill should be written off.

The suggestion is clear. Somehow, a government minister had made it possible for the debt to be written off. This has been emphatically denied. A spokesman for Paul Boateng was quoted in the article. He said that 'the NHS trust has operated according to the standard procedure for unpaid bills. Ministers had nothing to do with that process.'

In its editorial comment section, the Mail on Sunday linked the Ghanaian - who died in Accra last year - to the question of 'health tourism', in which non-British nationals come to Britain for free treatment on the National Health Service. It repeated the fact that the man had 'returned to Ghana without meeting the costs of his treatment' and called on Paul Boateng, as a former health minister and now chief secretary to the Treasury, to 'help end this health scandal'.

The Mail on Sunday has found a story that touches on two of its strongest obsessions: it is highly critical of the Labour government; and deeply conservative on questions of race and immigration. The piece is written in true Mail style - with talk of 'tribal chiefs' and the Ashanti 'tribe'. Such patently pejorative terms employed to describe non-Western monarchs have clearly fallen out of favour with all decent writers

Whatever relations the sick man had are entirely irrelevant. It is not the responsibility of the King of Ashanti to pay for health bills of Asante citizens, even if they are chiefs. There is no wisdom in bringing his name in the case, as it will make very little sense to hold Her Majesty the Queen responsible for the healthcare bills of her citizens in and out of the UK.

However, much of the Mail's story is simply wrong.

The facts are these: In 2001 the unnamed Ghanaian visited London, collapsed at a Tube station, and was taken to St Mary's hospital in Paddington for emergency care. He had not come to London for health care, as a 'health tourist'. He was in London on holidays, and had the misfortune to fall sick.

At St Mary's, the man was seen by nurses. He was only seen by doctors the next day.

He was then taken to the National Hospital, Queen's Square, for emergency surgery. The patient never regained consciousness.

He then spent several months in hospital before being flown to the Nyaho clinic in Accra. It is hard to see how the man could have settled his debt. He was still in a coma; and the hospital itself arranged his transfer to the clinic in Accra.

So who should have paid the bill? The rules are clear: the only person responsible for paying back money owed to the NHS is the patient who received the care. As the person who received the care was in a coma throughout his treatment - and is now dead - the case made so elaborately by the newspaper holds very little water.

The Mail on Sunday seems wedded to one of journalism's less reputable rules: never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

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