April 17, 2024


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Increasing numbers of Britons are abandoning the NHS and paying for medical treatment

Increasing numbers of Britons are paying for private healthcare rather than waiting for NHS treatment.

Record NHS waiting lists have driven a surge in patients going private since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with spending almost doubling at one major provider.

In England alone, a record 5.6 million people were waiting to start hospital treatment at the end of July.

Spire Healthcare, which operates 39 hospitals across Britain has reported an 81 per cent increase in self-pay spending – meaning people who pay themselves instead of using private health insurance – between April and June compared to the same period in 2019.

The NHS has been a source of national pride for generations of Britons, but even some of its staunchest supporters have begun seeking treatment elsewhere.

Kate Robinson, 56, has used private healthcare for years. Last summer she persuaded her mother, a retired NHS nurse, to go private too.

Aged 82 and widowed a year earlier, Ms Robinson’s mother had become “very cut off” during Covid and needed cataract surgery.

The pensioner had already had one eye done on the NHS prior to the pandemic and was “delighted” with the care she received, but her daughter did not want her to have to struggle on for months before getting her other eye treated so arranged for her to have the surgery with Optegra, a private specialist.

“I’ve worked in private healthcare my whole career so I had insight into how excellently it works – speed is a priority,” Ms Robinson said.

“[My mother] has great loyalty to the NHS but she was so relieved there was an alternative. It was as professional as the NHS and she was very well looked after.”

The procedure, which cost just under £2,000, was carried out within a few weeks of Ms Robinson’s mother phoning up to inquire about the surgery.

Ms Robinson said her mother was so impressed “she would absolutely consider going private again if she felt it was necessary”.

Creating a two-tier system?

As more people opt to fund their healthcare themselves, or take out private health insurance, there is a danger of creating a “two tier” system, with wealthier people paying for speedy tests and treatments and the less well-off being forced to wait.  

There is also a risk that NHS patients will get pushed even further down the line as NHS doctors performing private procedures prioritise paying patients. 

“By and large, private hospitals in the UK don’t have a fully separate workforce from the NHS,” said Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at think tank the Health Foundation. 

“They tend to have their own nurses but don’t tend to directly employ a separate set of doctors. They are [mostly] NHS doctors spending part of their time in private practice to supplement their income.  

“Staff [numbers] are going to be a critical constraint on the NHS being able to treat more patients and get rid of this backlog. If they are spending more time practicing in the private sector that might be taking away time from the NHS, which may have an impact on people who can’t afford to go private,” Mr Gardner added. 

Claudia Ariano, 27, recently moved from one part of London to another and has found it impossible to secure an NHS dental appointment at any of her local surgeries.

“One practice said I’d have to wait until November and another said it didn’t have an estimated date [for taking NHS appointments] at all,” Ms Ariano said.

This week, concerned about her gum disease and worried about the consequences of waiting months to be seen, Ms Ariano decided to pay £60 for a private appointment.

“Privately, it was very quick to get an appointment – I booked on Wednesday and I’m going on Saturday,” she said.

An Italian who has lived in the UK for seven years, Ms Ariano is used to paying for medical treatment in her home country. Although she thinks the NHS is “brilliant”, she finds the waiting times frustrating.

“In Italy you pay and you get [treatment] very quickly.”

Suzy Wheal, a tech start-up founder from Chichester, was diagnosed with lymphoma in August 2019. She relied on a mixture of NHS and private care when assessing treatment options, using her medical insurance to get second opinions from a private oncologist and private radiologist.

While her NHS doctors advised chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy, Ms Wheal, 41, was determined to have proton beam therapy, and travelled to be treated at the Proton Therapy Centre, a cutting-edge facility in Prague.

She paid around £35,000 for her treatment, and was eventually able to recoup around £18,000 from her private insurer.

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“The NHS cancer train is first class,” Ms Wheal said of the speed which with she began receiving treatment after her diagnosis.

However, she added, “getting a diagnosis [via the NHS] is so hard.”