Beware of becoming a cartel

The law forbids doctors from agreeing to fix prices or to have more than a 5% shareholding in diagnostic equipment in a private hospital

In the wake of Spire’s £1.2m fine by the Competition and Markets Authority, Michael Rourke draws attention to the competition law implications for independent practitioners.

The recent significant fines levied by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on hospital group Spire and some of its consultants brings the need to avoid anti-competitive practices in the healthcare sector into sharp focus.

If you work as a medical practitioner, you will be used to the potential of oversight investigation from several potential regulators. But the CMA announcement of a £1.2m fine on Spire Healthcare Limited and Spire Healthcare Group plc (Spire) is a reminder to the sector that it is not just health regulators that can bring enforcement action. 

The CMA is concerned with upholding competition law in the UK and there are a number of rules which apply to healthcare, just as with any other sector of the economy.

Second fine 

The Spire story prompted Michael Rourke to issue a warning in July

This is the second fine imposed by the CMA on ophthalmologists, but investigations and sanctions against private practitioners remain a rare occurrence. 

The majority of CMA investigations, reviews and sanctions have been concerned with the pharmaceutical sector. However, this recent case shows that the competition watchdog can, and will, investigate private providers and individual practitioners. 

It was not only Spire that received a fine. Six ophthalmologists also received personal penalties. Of the seven doctors alleged to be involved in the price fixing, six received fines of £2,978, £1,186, £2,312, £2,193, £3,859 and £642.  

The seventh practitioner was not fined, as they had brought the activity to the CMA’s attention. It should be noted that the CMA discounted each of the fines by 20% to reflect that they all admitted to the illegal arrangement and agreed to co-operate with the inquiry.