Recent private healthcare growth risks being sunk by current tough economic conditions, a new report warns.
The financial situation could drive a wider health inequalities divide between high-income households and those in the lower earnings bracket, it says.
The King’s Fund publication, Independent Healthcare and the NHS, forecasts that in the near term the private sector is likely to have an important role in supporting the NHS’s recovery from the pandemic, particularly in working through the elective backlog.
This is against a backdrop of the proportion of NHS spending on the private sector flatlining over the last decade and last year’s Health and Care Act undoing many market-based reforms that some believed opened the door to more private involvement in the NHS.
The report, written by researcher Jonathon Holmes, says: ‘As NHS waiting lists have grown and public satisfaction rates have plummeted, evidence is emerging that more people – including groups with lower disposable incomes – are choosing to self-fund their health care.’
But it adds that this growth may be stifled by the prevailing economic conditions, including inflationary pressures and the rising cost of living.
And while long waiting times for NHS care persist, access inequalities may widen because households with more disposable income will be better able to self-fund health care and avoid NHS waiting lists.
While those with lower disposable incomes may still choose to self-fund to get faster treatment, they will then run the risk of greater financial hardship if they do so.
The report notes some market analysts and commentators have forecast significant growth in private healthcare for the next few years and that some independent sector providers have invested significantly to expand their capacity in England.
But it warns that turbulent prevailing economic conditions and mounting concerns about the cost of living are likely to dent consumer confidence and limit demand.
It states: ‘While 2021 saw a rapid growth in the number of people self-funding a wide range of treatments and procedures, it is unclear whether that trend will continue, and whether the relationship between long waiting times and people ‘opting out’ [of the NHS] will also continue.’