NHS Choices- patients slow to take up rights on hospital

Patients’ right to choose which hospital treats them is being taken up far more slowly than the labour government had hoped and there are large variations around the country, according to private hospital operators.

Patients were given the right to pick any hospital- public or private from April, but the latest figures from the Department of Health show that only 9,400 NHS patients chose a private hospital in the four months to the end of July.

Some doctors and NHS trusts are doing little to encourage patients’ right to choose and in some cases are actively discouraging it, the operators say.

Richard Jones, commercial director of Spire Healthcare, formerly Bupa Hospitals, told a private health convention held by analysts Laing & Buisson that the proportion of NHS work varied widely around the country, from “virtually none” in some places to “certainly a third of our work” in others.

Ramsay Health Care, another of the bigger private hospital chains, said it was experiencing the same variations. Numbers are rising, however. In July almost 3,000 opted for a private hospital – double the number in January. That generated £6.5m of income for private hospitals.

On top of that, many thousands more NHS patients went to the independent sector treatment centres (ISTC) set up specially to treat them, either out of choice or after being steered there by primary care trusts, which in many cases have to pay for the admissions whether or not they are used. ISTCs earned £29.4m from NHS patients in July.

The independent sector’s income from NHS patients is £400m a year, plus additional work when the NHS buys operations to keep down waiting times.

“There’s still quite a lot of local contracting as the NHS buys operations to stop patients breaching waiting-time targets,” Mr Jones told the conference.

However, fewer than 5 per cent of non-urgent, elective procedures are being purchased from the private sector – a far cry from the “up to 15 per cent” that John Reid projected when he was health secretary in 2004.

Ben Bradshaw, the health minister, admitted: “There is still a cultural reluctance to really drive home to the public that they have a choice. We need a big drive on that, both with general practitioners and primary care trusts.”

Mr Bradshaw said he remained convinced that the number of NHS patients treated privately “will continue to grow”.

The health department is establishing a website on which primary care trusts will have to advertise all tenders for NHS work, making it easier for the private sector to find out what business is available and where.

Primary care trusts are now routinely expected to put all new work, or significant changes to existing provision, out to tender.


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