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The impact of private sector contracts on NHS provision and treatment inequalities

July 28, 2016

Patient choice and the use of the private sector for hip surgery in Scotland was found to be associated with a decrease in NHS provision and may have contributed to an increase in age-related and socio-economic treatment inequalities, according to research by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

The study, published in the Journal of Public Health by Oxford University Press, is the first to look at the impact of diverting NHS funds to the private sector on NHS provision.

By comparing rates of hip surgery carried out by NHS and private providers, the study suggests that the more contracting undertaken by NHS Boards in Scotland with the private sector, the greater the reduction in NHS provision. Patients aged 85 years and over or living in the more deprived areas of Scotland may have also been disadvantaged since the introduction of the Patient Choice policy in 2002, through lower increases in treatment rates compared to other groups.

Lead author Graham Kirkwood from QMUL said: "The claim made by NHS Scotland's 2003 white paper that the additional use of the private sector would provide 'sustainable local solutions to long waits' for elective hip replacement is not supported by the evidence. The involvement of the private sector was supposed to provide extra capacity to tackle long waiting times, so in theory, we should see NHS treatments stay at the same level or increase. Instead our results show the level of NHS treatments going down during a period of high private sector activity."

Between 2006/07 and 2008/09, an increase in the number of treatments commissioned from the private sector by NHS Boards was found to be significantly associated with a decrease in the number of treatments commissioned from the NHS. This period represents the peak of private sector activity, and the study authors say the association may have been due to the signing of the first block contract (worth £18.7m) between the NHS and the private healthcare sector in Scotland in November 2006.

Those NHS Boards with the greatest use of the private sector for elective surgery experienced the largest reductions in direct NHS provision and of those Fife, Grampian and Lothian NHS Boards had not recovered 2006/07 levels of in-area provision by 2012/13.

The study looked at changes in treatment inequality following the introduction of the Patient Choice policy in 2002, a policy whereby patients can choose to obtain their treatment from an out of area NHS provider or a private provider, funded by the NHS. From 2002/03 to 2012/13, patients aged 75-79 years increased their treatment rate by 65.7 per cent, while those aged 85 years and over increased their treatment rate by 31.3 per cent.

The researchers also looked at the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), where different SIMD quintiles represent 20 per cent of the Scottish population living at a certain level of socio-economic deprivation. From 2002/03 to 2012/13, the two least deprived quintiles SIMD 4 and 5 increased their treatment rates by 67.3 per cent and 85.4 per cent respectively while the two most deprived quintiles SIMD 1 and 2 increased their treatment rates by 47.7 per cent and 49.5 per cent respectively.

Co-author Professor Allyson Pollock from Queen Mary University of London said: "The 2010 UK wide Equality Act legislated for public bodies such as the NHS to tackle inequalities in the delivery of care by a range of factors including age, sex and socio-economic deprivation. Our results are therefore concerning and complement other studies that have shown that the private sector is risk averse and more likely to select out healthier and less poor patients.

"It is current Scottish government policy to eliminate the use of the private sector for elective surgical NHS care, although concerns are being raised over increasing use of the private sector in the past few years. In contrast, England is now dismantling its NHS and accelerating privatisation.

"It has been estimated that since April 2013, £5.5 billion worth of clinical contracts have been won by private sector companies. This is in addition to the continuing £5 billion Independent Sector Treatment Centre programme. It is likely that the policy of contracting with private providers for NHS care, combined with NHS expenditure cuts, will accelerate the closure of local NHS hospitals and services and negatively impact on equalities."
For more information, please contact:
Public Relations, Queen Mary University of London
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7882 3004

Notes to the editor

  • Research paper: 'Patient choice and private provision decreased public provision and increased inequalities in Scotland: a case study of elective hip arthroplasty'. G. Kirkwood, A.M. Pollock. Journal of Public Health 2016.
  • The research paper will publish here after the embargo lifts:

About Queen Mary University of London

Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is one of the UK's leading universities, and one of the largest institutions in the University of London, with 20,260 students from more than 150 countries.

A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research - in the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK (REF 2014).

We also offer something no other university can: a stunning self-contained residential campus in London's East End. As well as our home at Mile End, we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln's Inn Fields.

We have a rich history in London with roots in Europe's first public hospital, St Barts; England's first medical school, The London; one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women, Westfield College; and the Victorian philanthropic project, the People's Palace based at Mile End.

QMUL has an annual turnover of £350m, a research income worth £100m, and generates employment and output worth £700m to the UK economy each year.

Queen Mary University of London

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