As the NHS waiting list grows to more than 7.5 million people, the government has announced that it will push ahead with its plan to use the private sector to a greater degree to tackle the backlog.
Patients will now have more choice of where they can have their appointments, the government said.
A report from the Elective Recovery Taskforce released today said patients will be actively offered a shortlist of a minimum of five providers, with patients able to see provider quality, waiting time and distance to travel using patient support service My Planned Care.
The Elective Recovery Taskforce was set up in December 2022 to advise on how to increase the volume of elective consultations and procedures by both the NHS and the private sector as far as possible to tackle the backlog.
The government had announced at the time that it was planning to “turbocharge” its use of private hospitals and healthcare to cut the NHS patient backlog, which at that point exceeded 7 million.
The plan announced today includes the addition of 13 new community diagnostic centres (CDCs) – including eight privately run ones. They will be launched across the country as part of government plans to use the independent sector to cut NHS waiting lists.
Wider choice of venues
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay said: “We must use every available resource to deliver lifesaving checks to ease pressure on the NHS.
“By making use of the available capacity in the independent sector, and enabling patients to access this diagnostic capacity free at the point of need, we can offer patients a wider choice of venues to receive treatment and in doing so diagnose major illnesses quicker and start treatments sooner.
“The Elective Recovery Taskforce has identified additional diagnostic capacity that is available in the independent sector which we will now use more widely to enable patients to access the care they need quicker.”
The Labour Party previously came out in support of increasing use of private sector capacity. Health & Protection reported last May that shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Labour would make greater use of spare capacity in the private health sector to arrest spiralling wait times for NHS treatment.
The government has also set out a range of new measures to unlock spare capacity within the private healthcare sector.
These include a commitment to using data on independent sector providers to identify where they have capacity to take on more NHS patients to help clear the backlog and increasing the use of the independent sector in training junior NHS staff.
The 13 new CDCs will provide capacity for more than 742,000 extra tests a year once all are fully operational, bolstering access to care.
The private sector led centres will function like NHS-run CDCs, but staff will be employed by the private sector, which also owns the buildings.
“By utilising independent sector staff, the NHS will be able to keep pace with rising demand in the region and deliver a high number of tests for patients,” the government said.
Will Quince, health minister and chairman of the Elective Recovery Taskforce, said: “We have already made significant progress in bringing down waiting lists, with 18 month waits virtually eliminated.
“These actions will bolster capacity across the country and give patients more choice over where and when they are treated.”
NHS England has already increased its use of the private sector by more than a third since April 2021, carrying out 90,000 appointments and procedures every week, including more than 10,000 diagnostic tests.
Stella Vig, NHS England national clinical director for elective care, said: “Independent providers will continue to play a key role as we work towards the next milestone in our recovery plan.”
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “Our expectation is that once GPs offer patients a choice of where to receive treatment, more and more patients will choose to travel further to receive treatment if that means shorter waits.”
David Hare, chief executive of the International Health Provider Network (IHPN), who sat on the taskforce, said: “The publication of this report is good news for patients. This is a real, significant step forward to unlocking more of the capital, capacity and capability of the independent sector.”
No substitute for investment in NHS workforce
But the expansion of privately run community diagnostic centres is no substitute for investment in NHS workforce, according to the British Medical Association (BMA).
Dr Latifa Patel, BMA workforce lead, said: “It is crucial that more is done to help patients on waiting lists with whatever capacity is available given just how many people are waiting for treatment and procedures.
“While this additional support should hopefully go some way towards patients having more efficient access to tests, concerns remain over how plans for the expansion of the use of the independent sector to cut diagnostic waiting lists will work.”
“We do not have enough staff working in the NHS or the private sector.
“Doctors working in the private sector are also under pressure, so there is no guarantee that diverting more patients to the independent sector will cut NHS backlogs.”
The end result could be longer waiting times if not carefully implemented.
“Any expansion of community diagnostics centres needs to be carefully implemented to ensure that it does not just shift the problem – resulting in longer waiting times for private patients needing treatment and still not making a significant difference to the NHS backlog,” Patel said.
“This situation is really a result of a failure to adequately resource the NHS and to address the workforce crisis which is fundamental to having the capacity to deal with waiting lists.
“The government’s goal should ultimately be long-term investment in the NHS to ensure the best possible value for public money and a sustainable healthcare system that avoids an overreliance on the independent sector,” she said.
South West network run by InHealth
A total of five of the private sector CDCs will operate in the South West of England, with permanent sites fully opening in 2024 in Redruth, Bristol, Torbay, Yeovil and Weston Super Mare.
The South West network will be run by InHealth, a specialist provider of diagnostic tests which has worked with hospitals and commissioners across the health service for more than 30 years.
Additional diagnostic testing capacity is already being rolled out in the region via the use of mobile diagnostic facilities, to provide additional diagnostic services while these sites are constructed.
Three others will open in Southend, Northampton and South Birmingham – with the former commencing activity from November and the latter two from December. This adds to the four CDCs run by the independent sector that are already operational in Brighton, North Solihull, Oxford, and Salford.
There are currently 114 CDCs open across the country, which have delivered an additional 4.6 million tests, checks and scans since July 2021.