NHS patients unaware they can be treated in private hospitals near them

Access to private doctors and hospitals is available and nearer than nearly half of NHS patients realise, according to a new report.

New joint research by the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN) and the Patients Association raises a flag for private care and shows patients in England could cut months of waiting by exercising their right to choose a different provider for NHS treatment.

Data in the report reveals almost 90% of people in England live within a 30-minute drive of an independent provider, with people living in the most deprived areas of the country just as likely to live near an independent provider as the general population. 

The report says across England, patients need to travel just 13.2 miles by car to cut over three and a half months off their waiting time.

Unaware of rights

But despite patients having a legal right to choose which provider delivers their care, including an independent provider, almost half of the public are unaware of these rights. 

Now the IHPN and the Patients Association are calling for the Government and NHS to take action to boost the public’s understanding of the choices they have of where to receive their NHS treatment.

IHPN chief executive David Hare said: ‘Patient choice in the NHS has for too long been a policy in name only, yet this report demonstrates just how much quicker patients could be treated if they are given a choice over where they receive their NHS care.

‘With NHS waiting lists at record highs, there is an urgent need for a real push from both the Government and the NHS to put power in the hands of patients, with a clear commitment to boost the public’s understanding of the choices available to them to receive the quickest possible NHS treatment, whether that be at an NHS or independent sector facility.’

Patients happy to travel

In the Midlands, a patient waiting for treatment in a hospital with high average waiting times for the region would only need to travel around 11 miles to a hospital with lower waiting times and see their average waiting time go from 26.7 weeks down to 8.9 weeks.

David Hare

According to polling for the report, conducted by Savanta, nearly three-quarters (73%) of patients would be happy to travel more than 30 minutes outside of their local area to get treatment more quickly. Only 5% of people said they would not travel outside their local area to get quicker treatment from the NHS. 

IHPN and the Patients Association want to see NHS England establish an online one-stop portal where patients can search for their local treatment options with easily comparable information so they can choose a provider with the shortest waiting times.

Survey of patients’ awareness 

The organisations also recommend NHS England sets up a comprehensive annual survey of patient awareness of choice, with a report to the Secretary of State on how the service plans to improve the awareness of patient choice and patients’ uptake of choice.

The report, ‘Time to Choose: How patients exercising their right to choose can help clear the NHS elective backlog’, also looks at the role independent providers can play in speeding up delivery of NHS treatment, particularly in terms of reducing health inequalities. 

Patients Association chief executive Rachel Power said: ‘The right to choose your provider has been available for two decades, yet many patients are unaware of this right. 

‘We want health professionals to be clear with patients that they can choose where they can access the treatment, and we want NHS England to make it easy for patients to find out where they can get their treatment the quickest and for patients to be able to compare different providers.

‘Patients exercising this right will not only benefit individual patients but also has the potential to improve health inequalities.’

Deprived areas

The report says: ‘While there are some concerns that giving independent providers a greater role in delivering NHS care could “exacerbate existing health inequalities” given that “independent hospitals tend to be in more affluent areas”, our analysis of independent providers delivering NHS-funded care across England shows that this risk of exacerbating inequalities is unfounded. 

‘While there is a perception that independent providers are primarily located in more affluent areas, our analysis shows that drive times to independent healthcare providers for those people living in the most deprived areas of England are broadly the same as for the general population. If anything, those living in more deprived areas are slightly closer than average to independent providers

‘NHS England has stated that “there is inequity of independent provision throughout the country” with the Government committing to “ensure that plans take into account people living in those areas with less access to independent care…the goal must be equity of access to care on waiting lists regardless of geographic location”. 

‘Our data makes clear that independent providers can be found all across the country, including in more deprived areas and therefore the sector should be seen as a key part of the solution in both tackling waiting lists and reducing health inequalities.’

A copy of the report can be found by clicking here.