Patient safety in private hospitals

So much has been written and broadcast about terrible standards of care in some NHS hospitals in recent years, most notably but by no means only at Mid Staffordshire, that it would be easy to gain the impression that it might be safer to be treated in a private hospital. The profit-making concerns who run private healthcare have probably benefitted significantly from recent NHS scandals.

However, as our experience at Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA) and the report from the Centre for Health and the Public Interest (CHPI) points out, whilst there is no denying the urgent need for improvements to the promotion and regulation of patient safety in the NHS, there is little or no compelling evidence that the private sector is any better.

In fact I would argue that a combination of a false sense of security based on the assumption that if it is private and paid for it must be better, together with the gaps in the regulatory system and patients’ rights in the private sector, create an unnecessarily risky environment. It is also a credible argument to say that where there have been the worst problems with safety in the NHS some have at least in part been a consequence of imposed competition and fragmentation through part privatisation. Take the problems with GP out-of-hours services for example.

There has at least been progress with the regulation of private healthcare in England now coming under the same regulator as for the NHS – the Care Quality Commission (CQC). In theory, a private hospital has to demonstrate that it meets the fundamental standards required by the CQC just as much as the NHS. However, a deeper look at the system reveals an uneven playing field.

As the CHPI report points out, the same requirements to report incidents do not apply to private providers as they do to the NHS, which in itself makes it hard to monitor how safe or otherwise private services are. Information about clinical negligence claims against private providers are not publicly available, as they are in the NHS. The CQC has, to meet ministerial and public expectations, prioritised inspecting and monitoring the NHS. Bizarrely, as recently as this year the Government passed the Care Act, which exempted providers of privately funded care from the new criminal offence for providing false or misleading information to the regulators. As if this could only happen in a publicly run service.

Patients themselves have fewer rights in the private sector. Whilst there is a general requirement to operate a complaints procedure, unlike the NHS complaints procedure, those used by private providers afford no statutory rights to the complainant and there is no recourse to the Health Service Ombudsman in the case of private care. There is no statutory requirement to provide for independent advice and support with complaints which is the case with the NHS. Consequently it is much harder to hold a private provider to account. Even taking legal action for clinical negligence against a private provider is more problematic than with the NHS, where everything is overseen by the NHS Litigation Authority. A claimant against a private provider can be faced with complications over whether it is the hospital or the individual surgeon or sub-contractor who is liable.

AvMA’s experience confirms many of the CHPI report’s conclusions. In our experience the chief risks in the private sector have been where there are insufficient facilities and consultant cover to cope with emergencies; insufficient continuity of care or after care; and the lack of a critical mass of experienced doctors in situ as well as the aforementioned gaps in regulation.

All too often, in addition to the patient who is harmed through no fault of their own, it is the NHS which ends up picking up the pieces (and the tab) when things go wrong in private healthcare. It is time to shine just as bright a light of scrutiny and regulation in the private sector as we have begun to in the NHS.