The latest figures from the Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN) make worrying reading for private hospital bosses, with no sign of the long-expected boost in numbers of patients dipping in to savings or borrowing money to pay up front for tests or operations to escape growing NHS waiting lists and delays.

Overall numbers of patients treated in private hospitals in 2019, prior to the Covid pandemic, averaged 195,000 per quarter. In 2022, with England’s NHS waiting lists having increased by almost 3 million, this average increased by just 7 percent (14,000), to 209,000 per quarter, peaking at 216,000 in Quarter 4. The numbers are only a tiny fraction of the NHS patients facing long delays for treatment.

This year’s figures show 228,000 admissions in Q1, dropping to 215,000 in Q2, up 6 percent to a higher average so far of 221,000 (13% higher than the level in 2019).

However all of this growth has come from treating less profitable patients covered by medical insurance, while self-pay numbers, after remaining largely static at around 70,000 per quarter since Q2 of 2021 fell back to just 67,000 in Q2 this year.

And because these are UK-wide figures it’s worth noting that the statistics include a significant increase in self-pay admissions in Northern Ireland (up 90% from 1,000 to 1,900) and in Wales (up 17% to 4155), while numbers fell 2% in Scotland (80) and by 7% (4,100) in England.

This has left even PHIN to raise the awkward question “has self-pay reached its limits in England and Scotland?”

The private sector is concerned because the limited and falling numbers of self pay patients has run alongside more patients making claims on their private medical insurance, which in Q2 was “at the second highest level in PHIN records,” with 12,000 more insured admissions than in the same period in 2022 (9% increase). Private insurers here as in the US are ever eager to pull in new subscribers but far from happy at having to fork out to cover claims, which limits profits: and they in turn try to screw down the fees charged by the private hospitals.

So doubts remain over the future growth of the private hospital sector, much of which is being effectively propped up by the numbers of NHS-funded patients that are being treated.

The PHIN report also shows a substantial 14% (2,700) drop in numbers of cataract operations in Q2 compared with the same quarter last year and a 20% (3,500) fall in numbers of admissions for chemotherapy, both of which are by far the most common treatments delivered.

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