NHS failing to use private hospitals to tackle long waits

By Robin Stride

Private hospital capacity is being wasted because NHS hospitals are failing to involve them in planning to help ease the elective care backlog in 2022-23.

Figures from an Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN) survey of 20 private hospital members found one in four had not been involved in any planning discussions about the elective recovery with their local systems. 

IHPN chief executive David Hare warned: ‘Tackling the backlog is the public’s number-one priority for the NHS, but without urgent action, there is a real risk of 2022 becoming a “lost year” in which NHS waiting lists keep growing while independent sector capacity goes unused.’

Now he is urging the NHS to pull out all the stops to ensure patients can access the care they need. 

David Hare

Mr Hare added: ‘While the Government and NHS England have made welcome commitments to increasing the use of independent sector capacity to tackle the backlog, these new figures show this is simply not translating into action on the ground. 

‘Indeed, local NHS systems are asking the majority of independent providers to deliver the same or even less NHS activity in 2022-23 than pre-pandemic, with a quarter of independent providers not being involved in any conversations with their local NHS systems.’

Trusted partners

The IHPN said the NHS’s elective recovery plan published earlier this year states that ‘Independent sector providers have a significant role to play in supporting the NHS as trusted partners to recover elective services, including cancer, as they have throughout the pandemic’.

It also stated: ‘Systems will include local independent sector capacity as part of elective recovery plans and will work in partnership with independent sector partners to maximise activity to reduce waiting times sustainably’ and that ‘Systems will work with the independent sector within the context of their broader recovery strategy, population and local plans’.

But the IHPN survey found:

  • Of those that have had discussions with local systems, just 20% have signed-off activity plans for 22-23, 35% have had discussions but not agreed plans and 30% have had discussions but have not seen detailed plans. Of those that have held discussions:
  • 29.4% have been requested by their NHS system to deliver activity lower than comparable activity in 2019-20.
  • 29.4% have been requested by their NHS system to deliver activity at the same level as 2019-20.
  • 23.5% have been requested by their NHS system activity slightly (<10%) above 2019-20.
  • 17.6% activity was significantly (>10%) above 2019-20.

The private hospitals’ organisation added: ‘Overall, therefore, this means that in many areas the NHS has asked the independent sector to treat no more NHS patients than before the pandemic.

‘Again, this is despite recent NHS planning guidance setting out how ‘the system will maximise use of independent sector provider (ISP) capacity.’

It said despite rising NHS waiting lists, recent NHS HES (Hospital Episode Statistics) data showed admissions to NHS providers had fallen by 13.8% – indicating that NHS providers were not raising their NHS activity to make up for any drop in NHS activity by independent providers. 

‘Overall, this indicates the NHS will find it very difficult to meet the aim in the Government’s “Build back better” plan for healthcare to ‘deliver around 30% more elective activity by 2024-25 than it was before the pandemic,’ said the IHPN.