Private medicine in the United Kingdom

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Private medicine in the UK, where there is universal state-funded healthcare, is a small niche market. Private provision of services for patients who pay (or whose insurers pay) should be distinguished from private providers who are paid by the NHS for services which are, as far as the patients are concerned, free.


According to LaingBuisson in 2018 the total private acute healthcare market is worth £1.47 billion (not including consulting or diagnostic work outside hospitals) and 40% of the demand is in London. NHS trusts in London increased their income from private patient units by 8.1% to £360 million in 2016 and now had a majority of the business of providing healthcare to embassies based in London. 18 trusts in London now have private patient units.[1]

The inability of the NHS to meet waiting time targets for planned surgery led to an increase in the numbers paying personally for private operations. Personal payment for acute medical care increased by 53% between 2012 and 2016, from £454 million to £701 million, not including cosmetic surgery or costs covered by health insurance. This was particularly marked in orthopaedics and cataract surgery where NHS treatment was increasingly rationed.[2]

The UK private healthcare market had been forecast to grow from $11.8bn in 2017 to $13.8bn by the end of 2023;[3] however 'repatriation' of NHS activity has led to declining revenues from the NHS.[4] Dissatisfaction with the NHS was said by LaingBuisson to be the primary driver of self-pay demand in 2018, though cosmetic surgery still accounted for a quarter of all self-pay revenue.[5] In London there was a 3% decline in revenue for the 25 private hospitals and clinics in 2017, because of fewer clients from the Middle East. Overseas patients coming to London are more likely to choose the 12 private patient units run by NHS hospital trusts and more likely to be looking for cancer treatment than orthopaedics.[6]

In 2018 75% of private healthcare for UK based patients was funded by private health insurance. About 40% of the work in private provincial hospitals was orthopaedics, but consultants in other specialties were not comfortable with the facilities available or the level of experience of staff, so patients with private insurance outside London were often advised to opt for NHS treatment. London private hospitals treated the vast majority of patients coming from abroad.[7]


The Royal Commission on the NHS reported on private medicine in the UK in 1979.[8] Their report included:

  • Registered private hospitals, nursing homes and clinics, some of which also treat NHS patients on a contractual basis;
  • private practice in NHS hospitals, including treatment of private in-patients (in pay beds), out-patients and day-patients;
  • private practice by general medical practitioners, general dental practitioners, and other NHS contractors, including opticians and pharmacists, who provide NHS services but usually also undertake retail or other private work;
  • private practice outside the NHS undertaken by medical and dental practitioners, and other staff such as nurses, chiropodists and physiotherapists, who are qualified for employment in the NHS but choose to work wholly or partly outside it;
  • treatment undertaken by other practitioners not normally employed in the NHS, such as osteopaths and chiropractors.

Expenditure on private health care in the UK in 1976 was estimated at £134 million not including abortions, long-term care, or dentistry. That was about 3% of total expenditure on health care in the UK. At that time about 2% of all acute hospital beds and 6% of all hospital beds in England were in private hospitals and nursing homes. The proportions in the rest of the United Kingdom were lower.

As part of a drive to extend the choice of providers available to patients, the Thatcher government aimed to expand the provision of private medical insurance by providing tax relief to people over-60.[9]


They reported that there were 1,249 registered private hospitals and nursing homes in the UK with 34,546 beds in 1977. These figures included 117 private hospitals with facilities for surgery. There were at that time 116,564 people aged 65 or over in residential accommodation provided by or on behalf of local authorities, compared with 51,800 patients in NHS hospital departments of geriatric medicine. About 73% of the beds were for medical patients, 15% for surgical, 11% for mental health, and 2% for maternity. There were then about 4,000 beds in the private sector occupied by NHS patients under the care of NHS doctors, about 0.8% of the total beds available to the NHS. About half of abortions were at that time performed in private clinics and nursing homes.

NHS consultants who undertook private practice were permitted, if facilities were available, to admit their private patients to designated private beds (pay beds) of which there were then 4,859 in NHS hospitals or as day patients, or to see them as out-patients. 42.8% of all NHS consultants worked part-time, mostly because they undertook private practice. Part-time consultants on average derived about one-third of their income from private practice.

The Health Services Act 1976 established an independent Health Services Board to be responsible for the progressive withdrawal from NHS hospitals of pay beds. In 1979 the number had reduced to 2,968 from a figure of 7,188 in 1956. The Commission was told that the existence of private practice within the NHS facilitated and encouraged abuse, chiefly by patients avoiding waiting lists. Pay beds were at that time very controversial, but the view of the Commission was "We do not consider the presence or absence of pay beds in NHS hospitals to be significant at present from the point of view of the efficient functioning of the NHS".

Primary care[edit]

1971/2 about 2% of general practitioners’ income was derived from hospital, local authority and non-NHS public sector work, and about 6% from private practice. As Matt Hancock pointed out in 2018, "almost all GP practices are private companies". They work for the NHS under contract and, rather unusually for private contractors, have access to the NHS pension scheme. Dentists, opticians and pharmacies are also private contractors, but don't have access to the pension scheme.[10]

In 1977 some 11% of general dental practitioners' time was spent on work other than in the general dental service, probably mainly on private practice.

There were about 1.12 million subscribers to provident schemes in 1978, of whom 869,000 were members of group schemes. Subscriptions often cover more than one person and in 1978 a total of 2.39 million people were covered.

In March 2019 the Care Quality Commission revealed that of the private primary care services it had inspected of 32 out of 66 consulting doctor services and 16 out of 38 slimming clinics did not provide safe care. They were particularly concerned with the safety and efficacy of prescribing of high-risk medicines including opioid painkillers, antibiotics, unlicensed and clinically ineffective medicines and with poor communication between the private services and NHS GPs.[11]

Private income for NHS trusts[edit]

When NHS foundation trusts were established they were required to limit the proportion of their private income to the level it had been in 2006. For many this was zero. The average across England was 2%, but levels at teaching hospitals, especially in London, were considerably higher. 18 NHS hospitals in London run wards for private patients. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 permitted Foundation trusts to raise their private income to 49% of the total. Only The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, which hopes to raise 45% of its income from private patients and other non-NHS sources in 2016/7 and is trying to raise its income from paying patients from £90m to £100m,[12] is any where near the 49% limit. the total private income of NHS trusts in England was £599.1 million in 2016-17 and £626 million in 2017-18. The top 10 earning trusts, all in London, contributed £381.1 million to the 2017-18 total. Private income of trusts outside London fell. It is not clear how much profit is made on this work.[13]

The Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust have both opened clinics in Dubai. There are some joint ventures between NHS trusts and private providers. HCA Healthcare has run a specialist private cancer unit in partnership with The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester since 2010. About 25% of patients using private services came from overseas.[14]

NHS use of the private sector[edit]

The 1997 Labour Party manifesto made a specific commitment to end the Conservatives’ internal market in health care, but in government they retained the split between purchasers and providers of healthcare. In 2000 the Labour Government agreed A Concordat with the Private and Voluntary Health Care Provider Sector with the Independent Healthcare Association.[15] The intention was to increase capacity, particularly in elective care, where private provision was used to bring down waiting lists, in critical care, and in intermediate care facilities. This was followed, in April 2002,by the introduction of prospective payment with nationally set prices for acute, elective activity under ‘payment by results’.[16] Under patient choice, patients could opt for treatment by a private provider paid by the NHS. The NHS Plan led to the development of independent sector treatment centres which provide fast, pre-booked surgery and diagnostic tests for NHS funded patients separating scheduled treatment from emergency care. These centres played a role in reducing the price paid for ‘spot purchases’ with private providers. Previously when the NHS had made use of the independent sector on an ad hoc basis, it often paid 40-100% more than the equivalent cost to the NHS. The NHS Improvement Plan: Putting people at the heart of public services, published in 2004 there was an expectation that the independent sector would supply up to 15% of NHS services by 2008, but this figure was not reached.[16]

Rules to prohibit NHS consultants from charging "top-up fees" to NHS patients for extra services were clarified in 2008 to make it clearer that paying for chemotherapy treatment not available on the NHS would not prevent patients from subsequently accessing NHS treatments.[17]

When the coalition government introduced what became the Health and Social Care Act 2012 it appeared to pave the way for a bigger role for private companies,[18] but the impact of austerity on NHS budgets meant that take up of private capacity was low. In September 2018 it was said that the private sector in England had the capacity for around 100,000 additional inpatient procedures in the last six months of 2018-19. Although NHS waiting lists had risen significantly there did not appear to be any concrete plans to employ private providers to reduce it. Since early 2017 private provision had been steadily about 6% of the total NHS caseload for elective surgery according to NHS Gooroo.[19]

Scottish health boards spent at least £130,866,841 on private providers from 2015 to 2018, about 0.5% of the budget compared to 7.3% in NHS England.[20]

Mental health[edit]

Private provision of psychiatric beds has been largely financed by the NHS, as few psychiatric patients have the means to finance their own treatment and health insurance does not often extend to mental health. 1,700 beds were closed by NHS mental health trusts from 2011 to 2013. As a result, large numbers of patients are admitted in crisis to private institutions, often in remote locations. The cost is around £500 per day.[21]

Any Qualified Provider[edit]

Any Qualified Provider was a government policy intended to encourage all NHS, private, third sector or social enterprise health service providers to compete for contracts on an equal footing. [22]


One of the criticisms of private care has been that private providers are not required to produce sufficient information about their services to permit comparison with NHS services.[23] It is suggested that surgery in private hospitals may be dangerous because of inadequate equipment, lack of intensive care beds, unsafe staffing arrangements, and poor medical record-keeping.[24] In 2018 it was reported that about 7000 patients were transferred to the NHS each year from private facilities due to a lack of facilities to deal with problems in the private sector. There is often only one junior doctor on site in the evening in a private hospital, as surgeons generally return to their NHS work, or other private commitments and may not be available for support when needed. Most private hospitals do not have an intensive care unit, so if it is needed an ambulance must be called.[25]

The Care Quality Commission reported in April 2018 that 30% of the 206 independent acute hospitals required improvement, mostly because of a lack of formalised governance procedures.[26]

Information about performance is collected by the Private Healthcare Information Network.


The issue of privatisation of health services was an issue in the 2015 United Kingdom general election. The government's position was that "Use of the private sector in the NHS represents only 6% of the total NHS budget - an increase of just 1% since May 2010".[27] It is unclear what this statement meant. Some NHS services, such as dentistry, optical care and pharmacy, have always been provided by the private sector and, technically, most GP practices are private partnerships.[28] All the drugs, supplies and equipment used by the NHS are privately provided. Taken together this amounts to around 40% of the NHS budget. In addition some NHS organisations subcontract work to private providers. The NHS accounts for 2013/4 show that £10 billion of the total NHS budget of £113 billion was spent on care from non-NHS providers. The main growth in private provision has been in mental health and community health services.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Private patient unit income hits £360m in London". Health Service Journal. 21 February 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  2. ^ "Numbers 'going private' for surgery soaring as NHS rationing deepens". Telegraph. 11 August 2018. Retrieved 14 August 2018.
  3. ^ "UK Private Healthcare Market Expected To Reach US$ 13.8 Bn by End of 2023 with CAGR of 2.6%". Medgadget. 19 March 2018. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  4. ^ Plimmer, Gill (21 July 2018). "UK private hospitals suffer as NHS brings work back in house". Financial Times. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  5. ^ "NHS waits and restrictions driving out-of-pocket spending". LaingBuisson. 12 December 2018. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  6. ^ "Cancer care becomes biggest earner for London's private hospitals". Financial Times. 8 February 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
  7. ^ "Private Patient Units – the £1bn opportunity?". Health Service Journal. 20 March 2019. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  8. ^ Royal Commission on the NHS. HMSO. 1979. ISBN 0 10 176150 3. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
  9. ^ Spencelayh, Emma. "Evolution, revolution or confusion?" (PDF). Health Foundation. Health Foundation. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  10. ^ "Hancock defends GP at Hand endorsement by arguing GP practices are all 'private'". Pulse. 5 October 2018. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  11. ^ "CQC: Nearly half of private primary care services not providing safe care". Pulse. 28 March 2019. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  12. ^ "NHS in dash for private cash". The Times. 1 January 2017. Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  13. ^ "London's private income growth covers decline across other trusts". Health Service Journal. 29 November 2018. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  14. ^ "NHS expands private care to help fill £20bn funding gap". Financial Times. 2 March 2016. Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  15. ^ "A Concordat with the Private and Voluntary Health Care Provider Sector". Department of Health. 31 October 2000. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  16. ^ a b Spencelayh, Emma. "Evolution, revolution or confusion?" (PDF). Health Foundation. Health Foundation. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  17. ^ "Johnson lifts NHS ban on top-up treatment". Guardian. 4 November 2008. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  18. ^ "Private providers push for bigger NHS role". Financial Times. 18 June 2015. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  19. ^ "Private sector could do 'extra 100,000 ops'". Health Service Journal. 5 September 2018. Retrieved 8 October 2018.
  20. ^ "At least £130m spent by Scottish health boards on private healthcare". ITV. 2 January 2019. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  21. ^ "Stem the patient overspill with this dream team". Health Service Journal. 27 April 2015. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  22. ^ "Is the NHS being privatised?". King's Fund. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  23. ^ "Improving data on private sector healthcare". Health Service Journal. 14 May 2007. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  24. ^ Leys, Colin; Toft, Brian (20 August 2014). "New report highlights patient safety risks in private hospitals". Centre for Health and the Public Interest. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  25. ^ "The safety of private hospitals". Lexology. 30 November 2018. Retrieved 13 January 2019.
  26. ^ "A third of private hospitals in England are providing substandard care". Inews. 11 April 2018. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
  27. ^ "'Jarrow March' ends in pro-NHS rally in London". BBC News. 6 September 2014. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  28. ^ "Is the NHS being privatised?". King's Fund. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  29. ^ "Is the NHS being privatised?". King's Fund. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 20 June 2015.