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David Rose smiling in front of a view over London's skyline

BY Leo Hynett


NHS Waiting Lists Drive Private Medical Treatment Boom

Spending on private healthcare is rising due to immense NHS waiting times. Will the trend continue amidst the cost of living crisis?

APRIL 22  2022


A report from private health sector analysts LaingBuisson has revealed that people across the UK are increasingly turning to the private sector to access care. With over 6million people currently waiting for elective care on the NHS, it’s unsurprising that those who can afford to skip the lengthy waiting lists are doing so.

Some patients are waiting over 2 years for treatments as the 18-week treatment target vanishes into the realms of impossibility for many trusts across the UK. As a result, private treatment is growing more and more appealing by the day. However, not everyone can afford to go private.


Private diagnostic testing

Seeking a diagnosis is often a long process, even when waiting lists were at pre-pandemic rates. Waits for diagnostic tests such as MRI scans are currently exceeding targets by a considerable margin. The NHS target is that a maximum of 1% of patients will wait longer than 6 weeks for their diagnostic appointment. However, at the end of December 2021, the total number of patients waiting over six weeks from referral was 419,300 – 29% of those on the waiting list.

These lengthy waits are one of the main drivers of take-up of self-pay:

‘​​There is clearly a direct correlation between lengthening NHS waiting lists and people’s appetite to pay for their own treatment. No-one likes to be in unnecessary pain and the push factors may be enough to sustain continued growth in private healthcare self-pay.’

Private diagnostic test providers ‘have reported year-on-year rises of people self-paying of 50-60% in the past 12 months’ despite the current period of economic uncertainty. The UK’s biggest private hospital group, Spire Healthcare, ‘recently disclosed that it had recorded a 115% jump in the number of people paying for their own care between 2020 and 2021.’

The increase in paying for private healthcare is being led by older working-age adults and pensioners. Affluent areas are unsurprisingly seeing the highest rise in self-pay. The money that these demographics are spending on private care is suggested to have come from reduced spending on leisure activities (such as holidaying and eating out) during the pandemic, or from savings that people now feel are worth spending on their health in light of the vast health impacts of the pandemic.


Access to private care during COVID

With GP surgeries closed to face-to-face appointments, many of us found ourselves turning to the internet to seek appointments and health advice – and were then surprised by how many alternative options there were to traditional models of NHS care.

Seeking medical advice during covid led many members of the British public to come into contact with private healthcare for the first time, whether that was for GP consultations or seeking mental health support. Affordable private therapy providers such as Better Help were an incredible tool to support the mental health of the nation as NHS waiting lists skyrocketed.

An increase in teleconsultations during the pandemic made the general public more aware of private care options than ever, and continued consumer confidence in these private options will be integral to the continued growth of these self-pay options. The total value of the private self-pay market has risen every year since 2010, but whether or not this trend will continue amidst current economic uncertainty remains to be seen. The rising cost of living is affecting everyone in the UK and will likely leave little disposable income available to spend on care whilst the NHS remains an option.

Not everyone is able to afford to pay for their care and campaigners are concerned that this rise in self-pay will result in an unequal two-tiered system. Dr Tony O’Sullivan, an ex-NHS consultant and a co-chair of the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, commented that ‘hard-working people would not need to line shareholders pockets in this way if the NHS had not been underfunded, understaffed and neglected for so long.’

Although, if some patients are able to pay for private care then this will serve to reduce waiting times for those who cannot afford to do so. The fact that people in the UK are having to pay for private care despite the presence of the NHS is a tragedy, but the slight decrease in waiting lists is an – albeit slim – silver lining.

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