Optimism is in the air

The private providers’ trade body has been taking the temperature of the independent healthcare sector. David Hare reports. 

After a busy 2022, the Inde­pendent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN) was pleased to take the opportunity to pause and look at how independent providers themselves view the current healthcare landscape.

This culminated in the publication of our third annual IHPN Industry Barometer: State of the Sector report. 

The barometer provides a snapshot of how senior leaders across the independent healthcare sector feel about all their key markets and the issues affecting their business, and which we hope will make interesting reading for those working within the sector.

Overall, there’s no doubt that the health service is under significant pressure, with rising demand from patients across all parts of the system.

Civica Medical Billing

Economic downturn

In addition, we are facing an economic downturn and cost of living crisis which is impacting all healthcare providers’ ability to run their organisations and recruit and retain staff, not to mention the inflationary pressures showing up in the energy and labour markets. 

But while this may paint a gloomy picture, it’s clear that independent providers are overall feeling positive about the prospects in all their key markets, with growth expected particularly in both domestic and international self-pay. 

Almost nine-in-ten providers (88%) are ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’ about the private self-pay market – unsurprising given the backdrop of rising NHS backlogs leading to more people paying privately for their care. 

In addition, over half (55%) also feel ‘positively’ or ‘very positively’ about the market for insured patients, with the same number positive about the international self-pay market – a marked increase from 20% last year now that Covid travel restrictions are thankfully a thing of the past. 

Of course, coupled with this, the sector is not immune from the wider economic challenges facing businesses all across the country, notably rising inflation and low economic growth. 

More than half of respondents (54%) reported this being felt most in pressure on wages, followed by prices for services not keeping up with inflation (42%). 

Interestingly – and encouragingly – no respondents felt the impact was being seen in declining consumer confidence, suggesting demand for private healthcare will continue to grow. 

Workforce shortages

As Independent Practitioner Today readers will be aware, workforce shortages and the difficulties around both recruiting and retaining staff loom large in the sector. 

When asked about the biggest challenges facing the independent sector, the overwhelming majority (80%) of the respondents to the barometer cited access to skilled workforce and shortages.

And this is not just seen as an operational issue but a safety and quality one too. Almost nine-in-ten providers (88%) told us that workforce recruitment, training and development was the biggest challenge in relation to quality and safety in their organisation. 

But as clinicians working in the sector will know, the independent health sector is working hard to ‘grow its own’ workforce, with the survey demonstrating the wide variety of ways that our members are bolstering their numbers. 

This may be through apprenticeships, training and development, more employee support and well-being, overseas recruitment or changes to contract/benefit packages. 

The IHPN published its third annual Industry Barometer in December

And for our part, IHPN is continuing to do all it can to support members on a range of workforce issues. This includes looking at innovative new ways we can help the sector to access specialist clinical staff, including nurses, anaesthetists and radiographers. 

Brexit has, of course, impacted on the ability to recruit highly skilled workers from overseas and, in the last year, the IHPN has welcomed the opportunity to continue the work with Talent Beyond Boundaries. 

This refugee organisation specialises in placing clinicians in the UK. Around 100 refugees have been placed among IHPN members since this activity began. 

Workforce plan

And in addition to our on-going work with Health Education England to support doctors in training, we will also be working with colleagues in the NHS and Government to ensure the sector is fully factored into the ‘comprehensive workforce plan’ for the health service that was announced by the Chancellor last autumn. 

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, the healthcare regulatory landscape is changing dramatically, and in terms of the forthcoming changes to the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC’s) operating model, the jury is definitely still out in the sector. 

Indeed, equal numbers of members feel the new CQC assessment and inspection framework is both an ‘opportunity’ and a ‘challenge’. 

To support members to navigate this new word, IHPN has set up a new member reference group to discuss the CQC’s new regulatory approach to help ensure the independent sector is fully factored into the regulator’s plans.

So while it is a nuanced picture in some areas, this year’s Industry Barometer overall shows the real sense of optimism within the independent healthcare sector, with demand for the high-quality services it provides expected to rise significantly in the coming year – particularly among private patients. 

We hope Independent Practitioner Today readers enjoyed these insights and will look with interest at what this year’s will hold.

David Hare (right) is chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network