Self-pay set to flourish

By Robin Stride

A 10-15% rise in self-pay volumes is being predicted in a major study from market analysts.

It says the pandemic has given the private healthcare sector a boost due to the suspension of all but very urgent NHS elective treatment coupled with higher wait times.

This has led to ‘a surge in inquiries for self-pay treatment with private consultants, clinics and hospitals’, according to Laing­Buisson. 

It reports rising interest particularly in orthopaedics, ophthalmology, gastroenterology, gynaecology, and urology – but adds that the challenge will be to convert interest to business. 

The third edition of Laing­Buisson’s Private Healthcare Self-Pay UK Market Report notes that treatment remains affordable and accessible for many although continuing restrictions mean it is hard to satisfy demand. 

But it suggests that with the over-55s being the main demographic for self-pay and limited opportunity to spend on leisure, holidays and eating out, they might spend more short-term on health and well-being.

Specialty-specific services 

LaingBuisson says self-pay growth has been seen in specialty-specific services, including vein clinics, imaging clinics, ophthalmology providers and day surgery-only clinics – and some of these out-compete full-service hospitals on cost. 

At the same time, finance options are becoming more popular because patients can spread the cost of treatment. Covid-19 has also led to the rapid digitisation of services across all sectors of healthcare. 

The research finds no reason to believe the popularity of online consultations will decline and notes that private GPs’ online services were already growing in popularity before the pandemic. 

Liz Heath

Report author Liz Heath said: ‘Self-pay continues to show real and evidenced growth. While there are indications of an increased interest in private medical insurance, both from companies and individuals, in the wake of the pandemic, growth from insured patients is expected to remain static or slow for the foreseeable future. 

Confidence high

‘Conversely, confidence in self-pay is high, with 52% of those surveyed expecting that this market will grow by 10-15% over the next three years – up from 45% in 2019 – and no one thinking the market will decrease. 

‘We will, of course, have to wait to see how the market normalises after the pandemic and its related restrictions lift. While the NHS has faced challenges in restarting elective treatment, self-pay is looking attractive even if currently wait times are longer than usual and we may anticipate that even once the NHS fully resumes elective treatment, the private healthcare wait times will also reduce. 

‘The question is whether people, having discovered that paying directly for medical care is an option, continue to call on it, whether for a virtual private GP appointment or more complex surgery.’

Simplify your offering to get more patients

According to Richard Gregory, a leading commentator on self-pay, there are several factors clouding potential self-pay growth.  

Writing in this month’s Independ­ent Practitioner Today, he says doctors will be flat-out trying to clear the NHS backlog, but the same doctors will be needed to do likewise for insured patients and who will be asked to carry out self-pay work. 

Trusts could push back against doctors trying to see patients privately and much of what happens will be outside of hospital and consultants’ control. 

Self-pay growth has slowed over the last three years and Laing­Buisson has consistently revised downwards its forecasts despite the growing and ageing waiting list. 

Mr Gregory adds: ‘My belief is that this is a direct result of the industry’s relative failure to adapt its offering quickly enough to respond to retail consumers. In short, it is a supply-side weakness. 

‘Private operators have enjoyed double-digit growth in inquiries, which has not translated into similar growth rates in revenue and activity. Much work is still needed to be done in the key areas of pricing transparency and simplicity; of the promotion of payment options; of proposition clarity; of onboarding from initial inquiry; and of meeting customer expectations around service levels.’ 

He advises consultants who get most of their self-pay work from private operators or directly through their own marketing to work on these critical supply-side factors to convert more of the excess pent-up demand into real self-pay growth.