Private hospitals to provide NHS operations

Worth A Look, Healthcare & Welfare, Frontier Centre

Nearly 25 000 NHS patients in England will have publicly funded surgery in private hospitals this year. This is the result of a deal between the Department of Health and two private hospital groups aimed at cutting waiting lists for surgery. The first operations under the scheme should take place in a few weeks.

Capio Healthcare UK and the not-for-profit group Nuffield Hospitals have signed a contract to perform thousands of operations in their hospitals, in a deal designed to achieve Prime Minister Tony Blair’s goal of providing at least 125 000 extra operations over the next five years.

Seventy per cent of the staff doing the operations will come from Sweden, Ireland, and other European countries, and the rest will be clinical staff from the British independent hospitals participating or seconded from the NHS to work in their spare time. Fifteen Capio Healthcare hospitals will offer surgery to NHS patients, as well as 35 Nuffield hospitals. All 28 strategic health authorities in England will send patients to the independent hospitals.

The exact terms of the contracts remain confidential, but Health Secretary John Reid said the cost for each private operation and associated care would be “on a par” with NHS prices. “Of course,” he added, “all care will be free at the point of use for patients and delivered according to need.”

“I’m encouraged to see that UK providers can offer well priced bids, competitive with overseas providers,” said Mr Reid. “I understand there was some disappointment that UK providers did not secure treatment centre contracts last time, and am pleased that radical steps have been taken to reduce prices. The Department of Health’s tough negotiation with independent companies on a planned, national level has allowed us to drive down costs for the NHS.”

A separate government contract—to open and run private orthopaedic and general treatment centres to cut the backlog in cases—went mostly to foreign companies last September. Last week’s contract winners, however, will be operating on patients sooner, because they will use spare capacity in existing private hospitals instead of constructing new facilities.

“Today’s announcement adds even more capacity to an NHS which has already seen a massive increase in capacity,” said Mr Reid. “Record investment in the NHS, and the continued hard work of staff, has made huge reductions to waiting times, but there will be no loss of momentum in our drive to speed up access to surgery and offer patients a choice of where they are treated. By 2005, nobody should have to wait longer than six months for an operation.”

Both companies were predicting that the bulk purchasing power of the NHS and the entry of foreign private providers into the UK market will push prices down. Individuals as well as bulk purchasers will soon be paying less in consultants’ private fees, they said. “There is going to be price deflation in the market,” said Nuffield Hospitals’ chief executive, David Mobbs.