Going Private 2023 is a major new report on people’s perceptions of private healthcare from the Independent Healthcare Providers Network. Its director of policy, David Furness, picks out the key highlights and potential implications for the sector.
We commissioned the research which informed Going Private 2023 to understand more fully the reasons behind some of the trends we have seen regarding people’s usage of and feelings about private healthcare, particularly during and since the pandemic.
While we know lots about the numbers of patients being seen in the independent sector, and often what they are being seen for, what we know less about is how they feel and think about the sector, about why they are going private and whether different groups of people feel or think differently.
The research identified many things, but three overarching headlines are worth highlighting:
1. Demand for private healthcare is being strongly driven by challenges within the NHS. 46% of people who have used private healthcare said being unable to get an NHS appointment was a factor in their decision.
2. Most people feel positive about private healthcare – particularly if they have actually used it. 51% of people feel very or quite positive about private healthcare. That goes up to over seven-in-ten people who have used it.
3. There is evidence of a significant generational shift in the attitudes and usage of younger people. Surprisingly, younger people are more likely to have used, or be prepared to use, the private healthcare sector and are more positive about it.
Why are people going private?
We asked people to explain why they chose to go private, and the most common answer was the difficulty of accessing NHS care, with nearly half of people (46%) citing this as a factor in their decision.
The next most popular answer was ‘It is easier to book private healthcare appointments’, with 24% of respondents.
All of the drivers to private healthcare are consistent across different demographics, social grades and geographic regions. While there are minor differences, people have remarkably consistent reasons for going private.
When we asked people what they like about private healthcare, over half of people spoke of how you can be treated at short notice, with the second most popular answer being the quality of care.
The third most popular answer was that people are seen on time. This is further proof that patients believe the private sector sees people quickly, especially in comparison to the NHS.
We see further proof that wait times are a key driver towards private care through the number of people that first try to be treated by the NHS. 56% of people had tried to use the NHS before using private healthcare, while 42% had gone straight to the private system.
Younger people (63%) and those from DE social grades (63%) were more likely to have tried to use the NHS first before using the private system.
We also asked people to tell us about all the times they had used private healthcare – not just the most recent – and whether they had tried to use the NHS first.
Here the numbers are different – only around one-in-five (21%) people say they usually or always go straight to the private system, while 78% say that they usually or always try to go to the NHS first.
Essentially, more people have gone straight to the private system for their most recent episode of care, but these people may typically have tried to use the NHS first.
The inferences we can make from this data is that people tend to try and be treated through the NHS, but then choose to go private.
We can see this through the amount of people citing the NHS waiting times as a driver in their decision, coupled with patient perception that appointments within private healthcare are easier to book and it is quicker to be seen.
In terms of opportunities, it is clear then that, at the moment, independent practitioners would be well advised to be really visible, readily available and provide a swift, straightforward service – these are things which patients are particularly looking for.
One of the narratives which has sometimes had traction in recent times is that people ‘don’t like’ private healthcare – that there is a negative reaction to it.
Our research showed that while there are some concerns, actually, a large proportion of people feel positive about going private and would consider doing so.
51% of people feel very or quite positive about private healthcare, and only 11% have a negative attitude.
Positive sentiment increases significantly among people who’ve used private healthcare. 73% of people who have used private healthcare say they have a positive attitude towards it, with just seven per cent having a negative attitude, and over eight-in-ten people who paid themselves said they thought it was worth the money.
Get ‘em young
So where might there be opportunities to grow and take advantage of these opportunities?
For starters, it might make sense to think about targeting younger potential patients. While nearly two-thirds of people are open to using private health care, this goes up to nearly three-quarters of respondents aged 25-34 (74% of 25-34 and 73% of 18-24 year olds).
The 18- to 24-year-old age group has the largest number of private health care users, with 40% of them having used private healthcare – largely, we believe, for GP appointments, scans and diagnostics.
Young people are key for the private healthcare industry: 18-24 and 25-34 are the two groups with the largest positivity for the sector, the group that uses it the most and the group with the most amount of people willing to use private healthcare.
From the data, we are able to see that NHS waiting lists for straightforward interactions such as GP visits, scans and mental health support are driving young people towards the private healthcare sector.
Once they are there and they have used it, they are happy with the experience and are more likely to use it again. This is a promising position for the industry to be in, where more young people are using them and more likely to continue to once they have.
Access to information
The data tells us that people do not use private healthcare because they think they could not afford it. But it also shows us that patients lack knowledge about the costs.
When we asked people why they do not use the independent healthcare sector, 63% of people said they could never afford it, with 70% among DE social grades and those on the lowest incomes citing this reason.
But a vast majority of people also feel like they do not have good knowledge of how much private healthcare costs, with 67% of people saying that they were not very familiar or not at all familiar with how much different treatments or services cost.
We also gave people some information about the costs of different appointments and treatments to see if that made any difference to whether they thought they could afford it. The responses differed depending on the total cost.
36% of people said that they thought they could not afford private healthcare. But after telling them the accurate price of a GP appointment, a fifth of those respondents then said that they actually could afford it.
The point is that it is probably the case that better information and transparency around price – especially for lower cost appointments and treatments – would help tackle perceived affordability barriers and potentially bring more people to think about private care.
As you can see from the graphs above, there are lots of aspects of the private healthcare system which people are not so familiar with. This presents an opportunity for the industry.
There are a variety of ways that the industry can increase general understanding and awareness of private healthcare, which could also reduce the perception of unaffordability.
Here are some:
Increasing the transparency of the costs of appointments and procedures;
Improving websites to become more patient-friendly;
Incorporating functionality for easier booking or appointment movement;
Thinking more about marketing and promotion to potential customers who may not be your ‘traditional’ clientele.
David Furness (right) is director of policy at the Independent Health care Providers Network (IHPN)