Family doctors in Bournemouth have potentially courted controversy by setting up a private GP service at which people who pay up to £145 per appointment will be seen faster and provided with longer appointment times.
The practice has already prompted some observers to describe the parish as delivering two-tier care.
And there are fears now that other GPs will follow suit, effectively penalising NHS patients.
The three doctors running the Dorset Private GP service are offering “the unhurried, thorough, personal care we believe is best for patients” – at a price.
Patients pay £40 for a 10-minute phone consultation, £80 for a 20-minute face-to-face appointment and £145 for 40 minutes with a GP.
“With the NHS sometimes struggling to offer a quality service now is the time to choose a private doctor,” the website of the practice states.
The practice will also offer specific times for patients, with the opportunity to see the same doctor at every visit.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, was critical of the approach, and also suggested that the the management of the NHS by the existing government is to blame for the difficulties in general practice.
“This looks like the thin end of the wedge. There are really worrying signs that a two-tier NHS is emerging under Theresa May’s leadership. The relentless underfunding of healthcare has meant that practitioners in many parts of the country are struggling to keep the service going, but the news that private patients are being offered the chance to skip the queue comes as a real shock.”
And Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, suggested that such policies threaten to create a divide between the haves and have-nots within the healthcare system.
“We are also witnessing increasing numbers of people, who have the resources to do so, opting out of the NHS to fast-track treatment. The inevitable result will be a two-tier system. Those without money will just be left waiting longer for care. There will be a great temptation for some GPs involved to prioritise private work over NHS work. This would lead to NHS patients being treated as second-class citizens”.
But Dr Tim Alder, the GP most centrally involved in the scheme, defended the approach to general practice, warning that the system is bordering on collapse.
Alder suggested that privatisation is inevitable due to the underfunding of the health service by consecutive governments.
“Five years ago there would be far more people saying ‘how dare you do this to the NHS’ and ‘you’re causing it to fall apart by doing this’, rather than the other way around. But now most people understand why and are quite interested. They see it as an option for the future themselves. I’d love to be able to say ‘you can have 20 minutes with me on the NHS’, but that is not going to happen until we have twice as many GPs. We certainly won’t be using NHS resources, we’ll use ours, which means if we do this in NHS time, we’ll find cover for that”.
Alder even asserted that general practices operating within the healthcare system in Britain will eventually be required to charge every patient, if staffing and funding is not satisfactorily addressed.
“Sadly the NHS is no longer prioritising [quality general practice] and we can see a time when traditional GPs are private and the majority of patients are instead seen in clinics based in hospitals like minor A&E departments. The personal touch and the ‘whole patient’ knowledge will be lost”.