Surge in patients going private on NHS

More patients are choosing private hospitals for their NHS treatment, latest figures from the Department of Health show, as labour’s much vaunted “choice” agenda finally takes off.

Almost 100,000 individual patients have now chosen the private sector for diagnostics and waiting list operations, paid for by the NHS, since the option was first offered.

The great bulk have done so during the past year.

The rise in NHS patients has thrown something of a lifeline to private hospitals, which have seen the number of patients willing to pay for treatment out of their own pocket – as opposed to via insurance – fall in the recession. There are also indications that the private health insurance market is stagnant or falling for the same reason.

Since April last year, NHS patients have been able to choose any private hospital willing to take them at NHS prices, and almost all private hospitals are registered to participate in the scheme.

Over 18 months, and after a very slow start, the numbers doing so have quadrupled from 2,100 a month in April 2008 to 8,400 this August. The business is now worth £200m a year to the private sector, and rising, according to Bob Ricketts, director of system management at the Department of Health.

These numbers are on top of NHS patients being treated in independent sector treatment centres, and those treated where primary care trusts or NHS hospitals buy operations from the private sector in order to hit NHS waiting time promises.

All NHS business is now understood to account for more than 20 per cent of the income of some private hospital groups, and more than a third of the income for Ramsay Health Care business, which runs a chain of independent sector treatment centres.

William Laing, chief executive of the analysts Laing and Buisson at whose conference Mr Ricketts disclosed the new figures, said: “This is great news for the private hospital groups because they can turn the tap on and off at will for NHS patients. If and when self-pay revives, they can run down their NHS work.”

Despite the rise in patients choosing the private sector, it still accounts for only a fraction of all NHS waiting list surgery- less than the potential 15 per cent that ministers once indicated was possible. 

Asking whether the big squeeze to come on NHS spending is likely to mean fewer opportunities for the private sector or more, Mr Ricketts said: “Probably more”.

Dramatic changes in the way care is delivered will be needed to secure efficiencies and quality improvements as the NHS seeks savings of £20bn, he said – and an innovative private sector, prepared to invest, could play a big part. He played down the likely impact of statements from Andy Burnham, the health secretary, that NHS organisations are now the service’s “preferred provider”.

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