No one at either end of the political spectrum can dispute that the NHS is under significant pressure.
From annual winter crises to the challenges of an ageing population, the health service is struggling to keep up with society’s demands.
And it’s always non-emergency – though still life-changing – services that are pushed down the list when resources are tight.
But what if there were a way to relieve pressure on NHS hospitals and help the record four million people on lists for vital procedures such as hip and knee operations? And what if this meant patients could be treated free at the point of use, at quality facilities, at no additional cost to the NHS?
Fortunately there is. Unfortunately, it involves the private sector, which is anathema to the debate in Britain.
Large parts of the NHS have always been delivered by the private sector in some form, including GPs. The issue is that most people don’t realise this.
Nor do they realise that they have a choice about where they are treated for planned NHS care – whether in an NHS or private hospital. The cost to the NHS is the same regardless – over 500,000 people every year are treated by private hospitals and paid for by the NHS, reporting excellent outcomes and standards of care.
If you weren’t aware of this, you are not alone – less than half of us know that we could choose where to be treated. One of the health service’s best-kept secrets, exercising this choice can help patients get their care that bit earlier, alleviating pain and discomfort, and potentially returning them to a full and active life more swiftly.
The NHS and private operators can work together, for the benefit of patients. But the psychological aversion to this common-sense practice of co-peration and partnership is intense.
Last month it was announced that University Hospital Plymouth NHS Trust, where waiting lists for certain procedures were out of control, would enter into a partnership with independent healthcare operator Care UK.
Almost all Plymouth’s hip and knee operations will now be performed at Care UK’s Plymouth Treatment Centre, rated “outstanding” by the healthcare regulator, by a mixture of NHS and private surgeons.
This is a win-win for everyone. The patients get the vital operations they need, without being subject to endless waiting. The surgeons from the local NHS Trust can do their jobs, rather than be left standing around while emergency pressures crowd out the bed and theatre space needed for planned operations (a problem now sadly not just confined to winter). And it doesn’t cost the NHS any extra.
Sadly, the partnership drew the inevitable howls of outrage that this somehow represented the “privatisation” of the NHS.
This stock response to any involvement of the private sector in the NHS conveniently overlooks some crucial facts: nothing has been sold off, and no patients will have to pay for care.
Recent research by the NHS Partners Network found over a million people will be waiting longer than the government’s target of 18 weeks for treatment by 2024 unless urgent action is taken.
The NHS needs to embrace solutions that help patients get better access to care. Partnership models – in diagnostics or community services as well as primary care – can be developed which benefit all sides, if we could only get past the knee-jerk reaction.
In most other advanced economies, the healthcare debate focuses on how to deliver services of the highest possible quality for the funding available.
But here in Britain, there is too often a fixation over who provides the service instead – an issue that is irrelevant to most patients, as long as they can access care.
With the pressure on the healthcare service inevitably set to grow in the years ahead, the people whom the NHS serves cannot afford the indulgence of ideological debate. The time has come to embrace new ways of working and ensure that the NHS can sustain what really matters: high-quality healthcare, free at the point of use.