A new initiative from the British government is encouraging the NHS to set up branches in areas such as the Gulf, Brazil, India and China - in the belief that the health service is a major brand with international value.

Under the terms of the plan, which will be launced by the Department of Health and UK Trade and Investment this autumn, renowned hospitals such as Great Ormond Street, the Royal Marsden, and Guy's and St Thomas' will be able to create branches outside the UK under the NHS umbrella. The hospitals will be linked to foreign governments hoping to tap into the benefits of the British healthcare system.

The initial investment required to set up branches can be redirected from hospitals' existing private operations, but the profits will be injected back into the NHS.

Health minister Anne Milton told the Independent: "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."

The initiative is said to be largely inspired by the success of American hospitals, including Baltimore's Johns Hopkins, abroad. However The Patients Association, a British lobbying group which aims to improve patients' healthcare experience, believes that overseas expansion will provide a distraction during a time of upheaval in the NHS.

The Association's chief executive, Katherine Murphy, said: "The guiding principle of the NHS must be to ensure that outcomes and care for patients come 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."