The private health sector is waging a campaign of exaggeration and disinformation to mislead the wider public into believing their businesses are growing at a rate of knots, while the NHS is constrained by woefully inadequate funding.
First we had the Daily Telegraph publishing misleading claims of how cheap private treatment can be, and reports of a massive percentage increase in “self pay” treatment that ignored an almost static total of patients resorting to private hospitals.
The most recent focus has been on private GP appointments. While pressure on NHS GPs has continued to grow, private healthcare chain Spire claims there has been a “surge” of patients paying for GP appointments, as reported in March in both the Independent and in the NHS-hating Telegraph.
But Spire’s “surge” seems to have been from a very low base indeed. Spire says numbers of appointments with their 125 private GPs leapt from just 23,000 in 2021 … to a new peak of just 32,000 last year.
That is an increase of almost 40%, which sounds impressive … until you realise the new peak is only 9,000 more appointments, and averages just 615 appointments per week – or an average of just over 5 appointments per Spire GP per week. And even at the claimed 25 minutes per private appointment this would keep each private GP busy for just over two hours a week.
Another predictable source of inflated statistics on private medicine is of course the Daily Mail which back in January claimed: “The number of patients paying for private treatment in the UK has risen by 39 per cent over the past two years … with millions now bypassing their own GP completely as they struggle to get appointments and beat the lengthy queues.”
The source of this information, which was trumpeted in the Mail headline “3.7 million patients have paid to see a private GP in the last two years,” (with the follow-up claim that “Up to 1.6 million people have used a paid-for GP for the first time since the pandemic”) – seems less than convincing.
These very large numbers are based on the outcome of a much smaller YouGov survey … of just 1,755 people, commissioned for The Times, and published back in May 2022. Apparently, 7 percent (123 people) of those responding to the poll said they had used a private online or in-person GP service in the past two years. So 3.7 million is 7% of the UK adult population: – except it isn’t, and it’s not clear how the 3.7m figure has emerged.
There are no official sources of reliable information on private GP services, and survey findings vary. A Lib-Dem-commissioned survey of 2,000 adults, published early in January, estimated that “72 per cent had tried to get a face-to-face GP appointment in their local area, with 43 per cent successful and 29 per cent unsuccessful.” Of the 29% (580) who did not succeed, we are told 20% went to A&E, and 11% (64 people) paid for a private consultation. That suggests around 3% of the population making use of private GP services, less than half the YouGov figure.
But the real figure is likely to be much lower still. Even if we accept the claim of 3.7m private consultations over two years, this compares with the NHS delivering 340m appointments in 2022 alone, averaging 6.5 million per week, with a peak performance of 36.1 million – more than 1.1m per day – in October 2022. So the private sector takes two years to handle just 1.2% of the annual NHS GP caseload.
Of course there is no doubt that NHS GP services are under massive pressure, and it’s no surprise that that levels of frustration mean that more patients are investigating private options as well as “do it yourself” solutions when they can’t access a timely appointment, or see their GP face to face.
But it’s clear that high costs and limited services are among the problems faced by those who do opt to go private. To make matters worse, the standard lower-priced private GP appointment is online, rather than the face to face appointments which so many frustrated NHS patients appear to be seeking.
While many websites are keen to describe the advantages of going private, the downsides admitted in the FAQs on The GP Service website include the fact that many private GP appointments are not only online, but also accessed through pharmacies, and are inseparably linked to prescriptions: “The GP Service offers a service which requires a prescription for all treatments.” But of course not all ailments require a prescription, and not all can be resolved by medication.
Private prescriptions are not capped in cost at the £9.35 per item like NHS prescriptions: many are much more expensive. Nor does the private sector offer any exemptions for those who would get NHS prescriptions free. Nor indeed will ‘The GP Service’ provide any consultations for children or under 18s – and they specifically state that they don’t provide any emergency service. So for many patients this is simply not an affordable or practicable option.
The costs are substantial. Superdrug offers an undefined online consultation with “a doctor” for £38.99. Lloyds pharmacy offer an online appointment with a GP with “years of experience,” “within 30 minutes” for £49.99 … including “medication, next-day delivery or same-day collection, referral letters and fit notes if needed.”
The London Doctors Clinic runs a chain of 24 walk in centres offering “GP appointments” 24/7 – at a hefty £89 for 15 minutes, or £105 over weekends and holidays. They also offer “Private Blood Tests, Private STD Testing, Well Person Medical Screens, On-site Medications, and endless other GP services” – each at a price to ensure a healthy profit. Its website states:
“Many of the general medications can be dispensed by our doctors at your consultation and the cost of this medication is tied to the real cost of medication which are generally less per item cost for NHS prescriptions.
“Blood tests, STI tests, X-rays, MRI’S, Ultrasounds and other investigations will incur an extra to the consultation cost and will depend on the price of the investigation. Any other extra costs, separate from the consultation cost, will be made clear prior to incurring these costs and you will have a choice.”
Similar schemes are available around the country. In Leicester, for example the Health Suite also offers private GP sessions ranging from 15 minutes for £65 to £205 for an hour, charging the same for face to face or online sessions.
Other ways of accessing private GPs include private health insurance: Vitality for example promises to cover online GP consultations in their insurance package (which costs upwards of £450 per year, and is obviously aimed at younger, fitter people unlikely to make many claims.)
But the self-pay equivalent again is far from cheap. BUPA offers face-to-face appointments in its health centres, ranging in price from £79 for a 15-minute appointment to £250 for 60 minutes.
Spire also has seen the chance of a nice little earner, and offer 30 minute GP appointments at £120, … while also boasting that the 39% increase in numbers of private GP appointments has brought them a 46% increase in revenue.
Even the Daily Mail admits that the first consultation is quite likely only the start of many more bills if treatment is needed: “The costs soon stack up further if blood tests, scans and small procedures are needed.”
With all the costs and limitations of private medicine, it’s clear that many of the claimed 1.6 million who have recently seen a private GP for the first time have already learned the hard way that ongoing support and any more complex treatment and drugs they require are only available from the NHS.
And it’s worth noting that a single 45 minute private GP appointment is likely to cost close to the £163.65 total funding NHS GPs get, per patient per year, to cover all their costs and consultations.
And while the first appointment with a private GP is the first in a series of bills and invoices, the first appointment with an NHS GP can be the one that secures referral to the full range of NHS hospital and specialist services.
So we can predict that even a 100% increase in private GP appointments, as the NHS crisis continues, will still leave the private sector as a marginal factor in health care, easily available and affordable only to the ‘worried wealthy.’ There’s still so much NHS for us all to defend.
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