many to turn to private health care as NHS waiting list worsen

The number of NHS patients going private has risen dramatically in the past two years and is forecast to hit a record 908,000 by the end of this year – a 20 percent increase on 2021 when the figure was 758,000.

The figures have fuelled fears the country is moving towards a ‘two tier” health system – with those who can afford treatment being able to skip waiting lists and receive timely care, and those who cannot being forced to wait.

The forecasts come alongside new data which shows another rise in the backlog for NHS treatment. NHS waiting lists rose to a record 7.68 million in July 2023, an increase of 105,000 compared to the previous month and a rise of nearly three-quarters of a million compared to July 2022.

Waiting lists are now over 3 million higher than before the pandemic. Broadstone, a leading independent consultancy group which carried out the private healthcare analysis, calculated there has been a 44 percent rise in private health admissions in the first four months of this year, when compared to 2021 – from 158,000 to 227,000.

If this upward trajectory continues – as experts predict – the figure will reach almost a million by the end of the year. Last year saw 846,000 patients paying for private healthcare.

Brett Hill, head of health and protection at Broadstone, said: “The incredible pressures on the NHS including waiting lists at all-time highs, deteriorating public health and pay disputes are feeding through into record demand within the private healthcare sector.

In the short to medium term, there appears little prospect of the strains on the public health system easing and we are likely to see continued strong demand for private healthcare in what could become a ‘new normal’ for the UK.”

Richard Sloggett, founder and director of Future Health, a public policy research think tank, said: “With NHS pressures at all time highs and strike action disrupting services it is no surprise patients are turning to the private sector to access the care they need.

With no sign of any send to the various pay disputes and backlogs mounting the growth in private healthcare use, which has historically been a trickle, has turned into a flood.”

He added: “The pandemic has clearly made things more challenging but difficulties were already in evidence before Covid. For Government the increased use of private healthcare will help reduce waiting lists, but it also reflects falling wider public satisfaction in its stewardship of the NHS.

“Addressing this before the next general election is looking increasingly difficult to achieve. “There is clearly a growing concern that the pandemic’s legacy could be a sharper shift towards a two tier health system.”

Jacob Lant, Chief Executive of National Voices, a coalition of over 200 health and social care charities said: “A record number of people are waiting for care, and many more are waiting for referrals.” 

“A long wait for treatment can have dire consequences for mental and physical health, work, quality of life and relationships.

“It is understandable, therefore, to hear that patients are seeking private healthcare as an alternative. However, especially given the current cost of living crisis, this is not a feasible option for many.

“The NHS needs to ensure they step up efforts, not just to treat people faster, but also to provide interim support for people who are waiting.”

Rory Deighton, director of the acute network at the NHS Confederation said: “Health leaders will be concerned that people feel they have little choice but to go to private providers because they were unable to be treated quickly by the NHS.

“This is all due to a decade of underfunding, which has resulted in backlogs and waiting lists. If the NHS was consistently given the support it needed to grow capacity in line with demand, people would feel less inclined to use private healthcare.”

“It still doesn’t stop there – the UK also has below average health spending per person than that of other comparable nations and has a health service with a crumbling estate and repair backlog estimated to cost around £11billion.

Leaders, their teams and patients deserve better than this, so we must see this resolved quickly.”  An NHS England spokesperson said: “The NHS has made significant progress in bringing down the longest waits for care that built up during the pandemic, treating more than 1.45 million patients in July alone, virtually eliminating waits of over two years by July 2022, and waits of more than 65 weeks are now down almost 60 percent on their peak ahead of our ambition to virtually eliminate those by March 2024.”

“As part of this recovery, services are working closely with private healthcare companies to maximise use of all available capacity, increasing usage of the independent sector by more than a third since 2021 – from 65,000 appointments and procedures a week to more than 90,000 now.”

On the issue of waiting lists a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Cutting waiting lists is one of the Government’s top five priorities and despite disruption from strikes, we have virtually eliminated 18-month waits and are taking immediate action to bring down long waits.”



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