The extent to which NHS England now sees the future in a permanent alliance with private hospital chains was underlined in October by NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens taking time out to give a keynote speech to the virtual summit meeting of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN). 

Of course the private sector is delighted at the renewed and strengthened prospects of “partnership” with the NHS. The summit also heard from former deputy CEO of NHS England Dame Barbara Hakin, who said private hospital firms would have to decide how much capacity they want to commit to the NHS and what type of treatments they are best placed to provide, insisting: “I think there’s a huge will to make this happen.” 

NHS Providers deputy CEO Saffron Cordery also spoke of a “sea-change” over the past few months in relations between the sectors and the crucial need for these partnerships to continue.

IHPN CEO David Hare, writing in November issue of  Healthcare Markets magazine reported:

“IHPN members hugely welcomed the opportunity to hear from Sir Simon and it is a clear indication of the importance he places on talking to independent healthcare leaders and hearing views from those ‘on the ground’ in the sector.”

David Hare went further, arguing that “barriers are coming down across the healthcare system.”

“The private/public divide has been a feature of policy thinking over far too long a period and I think there is an opportunity now to see the healthcare system as one,” he said. 

Also in October a grinning NHS England Chair Lord Prior formally opened a new £7.5m private day hospital in Stourbridge for Australian-owned hospital firm Ramsay Healthcare. The local news report referred to unspecified “health chiefs” who said:

“Stourside Hospital will provide a hub and spoke model to Ramsay’s existing West Midlands Hospital in Halesowen, and that it will support the strong partnership between West Midlands Hospital and The Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust to deliver joined up healthcare services.”

Even the most prominent US health corporation offering patient care, HCA, has reasserted its commitment to collaboration with the NHS: its UK President and CEO John Reay has told Healthcare Markets he believes “the relationship between the sector and the NHS, as well as with the public, has been transformed by the pandemic.”

“We’ve treated over 14,000 NHS patients at HCA UK alone and other private providers will have done the same. That is a very large number of the public who are more aware of how we can help. “… I think there’s a real opportunity to promote private medicine given the surge in demand for treatment and hope that we are now seen as a useful part of the healthcare sector.”

While it’s quite understandable for NHS bosses to seek any means to maintain continuity of elective services, especially urgent services for cancer and cardiac patients during the Covid crisis, there is a real danger that institutionalising the long-term use of limited NHS funding to commission beds and services from private hospitals – especially with NHS bed numbers lower than ever –  will inevitably weaken the NHS and line the pockets of the private hospital sector and its investors.

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