Facing a 12 to 18 month wait for a hip replacement at the NHS, housewife Barbara Price decided to do something she’d never done before – she went private.
After the 85-year-old’s left hip suddenly ‘went down’ from wear and tear from arthritis in June last year, she was housebound and unable to get up to make a cup of tea.
Barbara could no longer clean, wash, cook, garden or shop, and the stairs were impossible to climb, so she lived downstairs and relied on the help of her 58-year-old son Karl.
In agony that even prescription painkillers couldn’t touch, Barbara spent £14,000 of her savings earlier this year to have the surgery done privately.
“We felt we had no alternative,” says her daughter Loraine, 54, from Coventry, a full-time carer for her husband.
A recent survey of 1,750 UK adults found that 51 per cent were now more likely to consider private health care, given the growing NHS waiting lists [File photo]
“Mom was in so much pain that she struggled to sleep – leaving her exhausted the next day. She couldn’t handle it and it made her really sad.
“Her NHS appointments and scans were delayed for months because of Covid and there was nothing we could do so we decided to pay to have the surgery done in private.” Within two days of contacting the private hospital, Barbara saw a counselor and two months later she had surgery.
“She can now walk through the garden and there’s a sparkle in her eye again,” Loraine says.
With England’s NHS waiting lists for hospital treatment now exceeding 5.3 million, the highest ever recorded, and estimates could reach 10 million – as patients who were reluctant to seek medical help during the pandemic, emerge – more and more people, like Barbara, who decided to pay instead of delaying their treatment.
Since the end of the first wave of the pandemic, Spire Healthcare, which has 39 private hospitals in the UK, says it has seen a “significant increase” in inquiries from people willing to pay for treatment.
A recent survey of 1,750 UK adults found that 51 percent were now more likely to consider private health care, given the growing NHS waiting lists.
HCA Healthcare UK, which has eight private hospitals in England, has performed double the number of self-paid hip, cataract and abdominal surgeries compared to the previous year; and 30 percent more gynecological procedures.
Meanwhile, the number of people buying private health insurance for the first time in the UK has doubled since the start of the pandemic, according to price comparison website ActiveQuote.
Brian WALTERS, director of health insurance company Regency Health in Cheltenham, says there is a ‘peak in demand’. Yet it is not cheap.
Even for the most basic package, which includes a £500 deductible, private health insurance costs between £40 and £70 a month for someone who is 55, non-smoker and lives in Tunbridge Wells.
And many policies have multiple caveats, such as not including pre-existing medical conditions.
From the start of the first lockdown until March this year, private hospitals were locked into special agreements with the NHS to provide extra beds and treatment to those in need of essential care.
However, according to a report by the Health Service Journal, two-thirds of the private sector capacity bought by the NHS went unused last summer, with poor communication and confusion in the NHS over the use of the private sector being blamed.
If more people choose to go private, there are concerns that the NHS will suffer as an increase in private employment could encourage doctors working in the NHS to quit their jobs and work privately instead.
‘More people choosing to go private will not in itself help ease the pressure on the NHS as it is the same consultants and clinicians who will see more demand from both private and NHS patients,’ says Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the health think tank The Nuffield trust.
“In fact, this could disrupt the market and, if demand is there, urgently needed doctors may choose to work exclusively privately.”
The consultants’ contracts state that private work ‘should not result in an adverse effect on NHS patients or services, nor the public funds available to the NHS’, according to the British Medical Association.
Nigel Edwards says it is ‘not surprising’ that more people are seeking private medical care as ‘the pandemic continues to put pressure on the NHS.
“There are about four million GP referrals that have not happened, huge cuts in planned surgeries and the prospect of waiting several more years as the service tries to recover from a mounting backlog.”
Tracey Loftis, director of policy and public affairs at the charity Versus Arthritis, agrees, adding: “Thousands of people with arthritis are having to wait a long time for joint replacement surgery because of the backlog, which already existed but has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We hear of people turning to private treatment, often as a last resort, and needing financial support from family so that they are no longer in constant pain.”
The bad thing is that when people go private they often have the same surgeon they would have had on the NHS.
So paying may get you seen faster, but you won’t necessarily get a different standard.
This was the case for Paul Nelson, 80, of Poole, Dorset, who recently paid more than £8,000 for spinal surgery at Spire private hospital in Southampton.
The ex-serviceman had been told he would have to wait 12 to 18 months for NHS surgery to fix a disc problem that was causing terrible lower back pain.
But privately, he only went two months from diagnosis last October to surgery (and this included a one-month delay because his surgeon tested positive for Covid). “If you can afford it, why wait for surgery?” he says.
The same consultant who treated me on the NHS was able to do it privately in December and did a great job.
‘After two days I was released from the hospital and after six weeks I was back to normal. I hope to play golf again soon.’
Private hospitals have treated NHS patients for the past 20 years – and in significant numbers: in a typical year, they will perform about 500,000 surgeries (including joint replacements) for the NHS, according to the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN).
Special arrangements with the health service during the pandemic ensured that many more NHS patients received their care in the private sector.
Since the end of March, more than 3.2 million NHS surgeries, scans and tests, consultations and chemotherapy sessions have been performed by independent hospitals (more than 100,000 were cancer treatments).
Those deals ended in March this year.
So far, the increase in the number of people taking out private health insurance or choosing to pay for themselves has not translated into an overall increase in the number of private patients, as the private sector has also lost some of its usual patients, such as foreign patients. , who normally make up a quarter to a third of patients in private hospitals in London.
But private hospitals are now bracing for an increase in demand as NHS waiting lists grow. David Hare, the head of the IHPN, downplayed fears that NHS surgeons could take on more private work to the detriment of NHS patients.
“The investment of time doctors are making on the NHS has to be honored,” he told Good Health. “But outside these hours they are free to work in the private sector if they want to.”