Staff shortages may hit self-pay recovery

By Robin Stride

Staffing problems could hamper consultants’ and private hospitals’ ability to take advantage of a surge of patients aiming to bypass NHS waiting lists by paying for their own treatment.

A survey from market analysts LaingBuisson’s database – which includes hospitals, clinics, individuals, managers and clinicians – has found high confidence in the market, with over 55% of respondents forecasting self-pay market growth of 10-15% in the next three years.

And according to Private Healthcare UK, although most demand continues to be in London and the South-east, interest in private healthcare is rising consistently across all regions.

But market experts fear the staffing crisis, highlighted by Indep­endent Practitioner Today last month, could severely hit hopes of a self-pay boom.

Liz Heath, author of the new fourth edition of LaingBuisson’s Private Healthcare Self-Pay UK Market Report, warned: ‘The challenges around staffing are a real concern given that they impact all aspects of private healthcare services. 

‘Adding additional operating theatre sessions, for example, may not be as simple as it used to be. 

‘The theatre may be available, but getting it fully staffed may be an issue. At a time when all indicators are suggesting greater demand for all private services, whether self-pay or insurance-funded, this is a real worry to everyone we’ve spoken to across the sector.’

She told this journal: ‘One of the solutions may be adopting a more flexible approach and focusing on efficiencies in clinical pathways and service delivery, but this will need a genuinely collaborative approach between consultants, clinical specialists and providers.’

Continuing worries

Ted Townsend

Her concerns were echoed by Ted Townsend, author of Laing­Buisson’s Private Acute Healthcare Central London report, who told a digital conference called to launch his publication that there were continuing worries around staffing.

The trend towards greater spending on health and well-being continued through 2021 and into 2022, according to the self-pay report. People are privately funding their care, but there is more interest in private medical insurance too.

LaingBuisson reports: ‘NHS waiting lists are the most commonly cited reason for the growth in awareness and interest in self-pay. However, the interest is not only in the elective surgical procedures most often associated with this market. 

‘People are increasingly turning to private GPs, diagnostics and consultants to expedite treatment, even if they do not remain on an independent healthcare pathway afterwards.’ 

NHS demand management strategies are also fuelling interest in private initial consultations and diagnostics. 

It says these relate mainly to restrictive funding criteria in ortho­paedics, ophthalmology, gastro­enterology, gynaecology and urology, where there has been a noted increase in interst in self-pay inquiries – ‘though how many convert to business is another question’.

‘Pull factors’ include greater priceing transparency and access to payment plans, which make it easier for people to choose to go private.

Information more visible

The report says some private hospital groups have harmonised their prices nationwide and some NHS private patient units are making information and prices more visible. This gives consumers greater confidence to invest this way in their health.

Specific services, such as vein clinics, day surgery clinics and ophthalmology providers are meanwhile offering competitively priced services based on their efficiencies and economies of scale.

It warns that although private providers are keen to return to service their core private patient segments, there is still the possibility of private sector capacity being used by the NHS to reduce waiting lists.

Mrs Health reported continued optimism for the future of the self-pay market, but said it was unclear about the scale of growth going through 2022 and 2023, although early indications from some large providers were ‘very positive’.

‘Consumer confidence is key to the direction of travel of this market. While the inability to spend money on holiday and leisure activities in 2020-21 meant that people had money in their pockets which they chose to spend on health and well-being, current inflationary pressures, the wider geo-political situation and the opening up of society following the pandemic may serve to stifle growth given this kind of healthcare spending is generally discretionary.’