Private healthcare can save the NHS, but only if we stop demonising it - for The Telegraph 02-11-22
By Karol Sikora
If those who can afford it take up the offer, then that frees up space for everybody else in the public system
Certain sections of the medical community would have me burnt at the stake for publicly declaring my concerns about how the health service is run in our country. It is heresy to even mention the word “private” in any capacity and many think those that do must be silenced.
I gave decades of my life to the NHS. Training at Cambridge and the Middlesex hospital, then as a junior doctor in London Cambridge and in the USA, followed by many happy years at Hammersmith Hospital, treating thousands of patients along the way. In recent years, I have predominantly been involved in creating new initiatives in the private sector so it’s fair to say I have a reasonable idea of how the two systems can balance against each other.
Grand arguments about how the health service is structured are irrelevant. However, I do believe that the private health industry should be appreciated for its contribution and potential to help clear the devastating lockdown backlogs. It is offering choice to millions of people, delivering cutting-edge technology and providing timely services which for many are impossible to get through the traditional routes.
Once a patient is diagnosed and treatment has begun, for the most part the NHS delivers a competent service. The problem is getting over those initial hurdles, which are incredibly stressful for an already worried individual. Diagnostic delays at all levels are the real root cause of our dreadful cancer survival statistics. Instead of waiting weeks for an initial appointment, followed by further delays for diagnostic tests, why shouldn’t someone be able to pay a relatively small fee to rapidly expedite that process? An ultrasound for example does not break the bank, and for the sanity of the patient that is money well spent if it is delivered in hours or days, instead of weeks or even months.
Clearly, that isn’t an option for everybody. But if those who can afford it take up the offer, then that frees up space for everybody else in the public system. Indeed, it is for this reason that some arrangements are already in place between the NHS and private providers for a variety of services, without them the backlogs would be higher still.
There is also the scientific contribution private medicine makes. I was recently involved in the construction of a network of proton beam therapy centres. It was the biggest achievement of my career. This state-of-the-art technology is right at the cutting-edge of science – an advanced form of radiotherapy which uses high energy protons to precisely target the tumour, reducing damage to nearby healthy tissue. A truly remarkable technology. And yet we have fallen desperately behind our neighbours in its provision; Spain has just ordered ten machines for a population much smaller than Britain.
On the question of staff, many of those decrying the private sector are working in it anyway. It is perfectly normal for qualified individuals to balance work in both systems. If the provision wasn’t there in the private sector, that demand would be transferred to the NHS regardless. Often those working in private practices would not work in the NHS for a variety of reasons so their skills would be lost, or they would move abroad to countries where the quality of life for professionals is far superior.
It’s a delicate balance, I appreciate that. But my biggest passion in medicine is empowering patients, whether that’s through the public or private sector. Hyperbolic insults about the latter help nothing and only contribute to the worsening situation that countless patients now find themselves in. A far more mature level of discourse is required. Both systems need to work closely together as in many other countries with more effective healthcare delivery than ours.