Covid spurred improvements

Reports by Robin Stride.

Covid-19 has been a catalyst for a vast range of improvements in private healthcare as consultants, hospitals and their staff were forced to look more closely at aspects of their work which had not previously been high on the management agenda.

Mr Sattya Bhattacharya

Many of these were highlighted as Mr Sattya Bhattacharya, a consultant surgeon and medical director at The London Clinic, reflected on the early months of trying to deal with the pandemic – and considered the positive impacts.

He, like many doctors, confessed to feeling an overwhelming pride in how staff and his hospital stood up to the challenge. 

It had demonstrated that a public and private partnership can work – and collaboration was achievable in the future. 

The private sector seeing complex NHS patients and sharing staff and consultants worked very well, he said.

Mr Bhattacharya drew attention to four big lessons learned:

1. The need for swift decisions and brisk imple­mentation, such as was seen with the rapid upscaling of laboratory capacity and the creation of an infection diseases unit;

2. The importance of clear and timely communications;

3. The importance of visible leadership; 

4. Not to always look to the NHS for guidance, even on clinical matters. 

The private sector had often tried to copy the NHS and, by and large, that was fine, he told the Private Healthcare Summit 2021. But there were times ‘when you had to do your own thing’ and not look to the state service for guidance.

Turning to the many positives of Covid-19, he cited technology, remote monitoring of patients, and the impact of online consultations on patients and doctors’ practices.

Virtual consultations

Now there was a need to establish long term what makes a ‘good’ virtual consultation and what governance mechanisms are needed.

Incorporation of private hospitals into the Image Exchange Portal was another plus. He had tried to get his hospital into it for a long time, but Covid made it happen.

Free parking from Westminster Council was a bonus and the pandemic made his team look at aspects of their hospital that they did not always think about – such as ventilation in wards, offices and public areas, and how much office space was really needed. 

More than 3.2m operations, scans, tests, chemotherapy sessions and consultations were delivered on an ‘at cost’ basis under the contract between the NHS and independent sector from March 2020-March 2021. 

Central London providers were removed from the contract last September, but private hospitals continue to support the NHS through the ‘increasing capacity framework’.

As a central London hospital, The London Clinic had always had a significant volume of embassy work and foreign patients. That market had closed off, but that shortfall had been made up by insured and self-pay patients. 

Mr Bhattacharya said it would be interesting to see what the longer-term impact on the market will be from Covid. He expects the huge NHS waiting lists now will drive self-pay demand, but whether overseas medical tourism returns to London is something ‘we will have to wait and see’.