Some light for 2021

David Hare casts a look back at 2020 and is optimistic for independent practitioners in the year ahead.

As we embarked on the new decade, with a new Government and the UK’s departure from the EU confirmed in law, 2020 was set to usher in a new period of stability for the health sector. 

And, for independent providers, it would be an opportunity for further progress on the quality and safety agendas, with the long-awaited publication of the Bishop of Norwich’s inquiry into rogue surgeon Ian Paterson due for release and significant work in train around NHS legislation and the promotion of the UK as a destination for international patient activity. 

However, the Coronavirus pandemic changed everything. Repres­ent­ing the biggest challenge to the health system in its history, the pandemic has had an enormous impact on everything and everybody, shaking the kaleidoscope and causing challenges very few of us could have foreseen as 2020 was ushered in, not least for the livelihoods of many independent doctors working in the UK.

Key positives

For all the challenges, however, there are some key positives from 2020 that will put the entire healthcare system in better stead as we move past the pandemic and, as 2021 begins, it feels appropriate to stay positive.

Firstly, the pandemic has demonstrated just what can be achieved when all parts of the health system works together and that it is in the interests of the NHS and the nation as a whole to have a strong independent health sector in the UK.

Almost two million operations, scans, consultations and chemotherapy sessions have been delivered under the historic partnership between the NHS and independent hospitals.

The sector and its workforce have played an essential role in ensuring vital treatment, notably cancer care, could continue during the pandemic. 

And with NHS waiting timings rising at an exponential rate, the full might of the independent health sector and its workforce is going to be needed not only in supporting the NHS in getting waiting lists down, but also treating the many more people who will be looking to privately fund their healthcare in a bid to access faster treatment.

The past year has also shed some necessary light on how the NHS and independent health sector work together and what more can be done to improve joint working. 

Indeed, 2020 saw the resolution of one of the key issues the health system has been grappling with for a number of years – how to ensure that independent healthcare providers are able to play their part in training the next generation of medical professionals. 

With whole NHS teams coming across to deliver care in independent facilities, the need to host and support junior doctors in the sector transformed from a worthy ambition to a real necessity. 

New training opportunities

Following a landmark agreement with NHS England and Health Education England, junior doctors will now benefit from fantastic new training opportunities in independent providers. 

This will allow them to experience and contribute to the high-quality care the sector delivers to patients, along with the teamwork, management and the broader culture of healthcare in independent hospitals, embedding this in the sector for years to come. 

Indeed, there is now a real understanding from Government and healthcare bodies that they must look at the healthcare workforce in the round, and not just those in the NHS. 

Earlier on in 2020, the Indepen­d­ent Healthcare Providers Network worked with the Government to successfully ensure that those working in the independent health sector would benefit from the Home Office’s visa extension for healthcare workers, with parity of access to PPE, testing and other support a key tenet of the contract between the NHS and independent providers.

Of course, with the prospect of a vaccine becoming more real for more people every day, life will indeed once more get back to some kind of ‘normal’. 

And while 2020 might have been a year that some consultants working in the sector would wish to forget, the ‘whole systems’ response to the Covid pandemic and the key role the sector has played will not be forgotten by the NHS, Government, regulators, and other key bodies.

That bodes well for a constructive, productive 2021 for the sector and its workforce.

David Hare is chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network