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Private providers used sparingly in summer waiting list work

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Private providers treated fewer than one in 10 of the patients left on NHS waiting lists for more than 18 weeks during the government’s summer drive to cut queues, analysis carried out by LGC’s sister title Health Service Journal reveals.

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Just 8 per cent of patients were transferred by the NHS to private providers for treatment between July and September, according to Freedom of Information responses from 99 acute trusts.

The proportion of patients picked up by private providers was even slimmer for acute trusts with the longest lists. Only 2 per cent of patients cleared from queues of 18 trusts with some of the largest lists received treatment in the private sector - 1,700 patients out of almost 77,000.

The findings come after the government distributed £250m to hospitals over the summer to help cut the number of patients waiting a long time for treatment.

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has warned NHS trusts that the money could be spent elsewhere if they fail to use their share of the funding.

NHS advisers suggested the low proportion of patients transferred to private providers could be due to a lack of capacity in the private sector to treat patients with complex conditions.

Nigel Coomber, director of the elective care intensive support team at NHS Interim Management and Support, said he supported the use of private providers but some were unable to carry out “very complex work” across many areas. “It’s often these patients that are waiting the longest,” he added.

“What this means is if I send patients to the private sector, I’m sending them fairly straightforward cases. In some instances, this will free up space for the more complex cases that only the NHS can do, but in others it doesn’t.”

Sir Leonard Fenwick, chief executive of Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals Foundation Trust, which outsourced just 4 per cent of its long waiting patients, said the use of private providers was “really for the low risk predictable outcome care pattern”.

He added that patients often chose to wait longer to be treated at Newcastle.

“Many patients will say ‘I’ll wait another two months, I don’t mind my aching knee’. Then you breach waiting times but you are still meeting patient expectation because they’ve exercised choice.”

Jan Thomas, NHS commercial director at private provider BMI Healthcare, said patient choice rather than capacity was limiting private providers’ role in cutting NHS waiting lists.

“It’s difficult for patients to understand why changing [to private care] for a waiting time is important. There is a piece of work to be done on how private providers and the NHS can work better together to help patients move,” she said.

Holly Dorning, an analyst at the Nuffield Trust said private providers may lack the capacity to cope with sudden demand.

“As the waiting list continues to grow we really need to think about where the extra resources to treat people are coming from,” she added.

“Is it the case we can create these resources instantly if given extra money or will it take time to re-jig the system to match the rising demand?”

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