A major public paper suggests that the creeping privatisation of NHS services under the banner of patient choice is damaging the whole concept of what the NHS stands for.
Researchers suggest that the reliance of the government on private healthcare firms can be considered a radical and failing experiment.
Experts investigated what happened in Scotland after the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition passed a law in 2003 enabling people to have their treatment in a private hospital but paid for by the NHS, In order to understand the wider context of the contemporary NHS.
Health bosses at the time had instigated the move in order to reduce waiting lists, but the study found that the level of NHS provision declined once the number of private operations escalated.
In a paper published in the Journal of Public Health, academics from Queen Mary University of London noted that “an increased use of private sector provision by NHS boards was associated with a significant decrease in direct NHS provision and with widening inequalities by age and socio-economic deprivation.”
And the paper added: “By 2012/13, territorial NHS boards had not recovered 2006/07 levels of provision. This was most marked for NHS boards with the greatest use of private sector, namely Fife, Grampian and Lothian. Patients aged 85 years and over, or living in the more deprived areas of Scotland, appear to have been disadvantaged since the onset of patient choice in 2002.”
Researcher Graham Kirkwood of Queen Mary University of London said previous research had found evidence that private healthcare firms given NHS contracts were making market-based decisions on patients stays.
“Private healthcare firms will discriminate against patients who are probably going to spend too long in hospital. They don’t want patients who are going to be hanging around in hospital because they are expensive. They are basically cherry-picking; they want the easier patients.”
In response to the research, Scotland’s Health Secretary, Shona Robison, outlined the measures being taken by the SNP government to safeguard the Scottish NHS.
“The SNP government is investing £200 million in order to meet increasing demand from a growing elderly population, and taking pressure off unplanned and emergency treatment. The Scottish Government is clear that health boards should use the independent sector as little as possible – only to deal with short-term capacity issues to reduce NHS waiting times. Rather than directing funding towards private companies, we are investing to improve capacity within the NHS.”
However, researchers found that the current NHS climate is leading to a rise in inequality, with the poorest and eldest sections of society particularly neglected.