Demand for private healthcare hits record high in UK

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Demand for private healthcare has soared to record levels in the UK as patients increasingly turn away from an NHS beset with chronic backlogs, data published on Tuesday showed.

There were 898,000 admissions to private hospitals in 2023 — more than any year since records began in 2016 — according to the independent Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN), an organisation paid for by private providers that tracks treatment data.

This represented a 7 per cent rise in the number of times that people opted for private treatment since 2022, when the figure stood at 836,000.

The sharp increase reflects public frustration with the state of the health service, which is grappling with long waiting lists and resource constraints in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

Ian Gargan, PHIN chief executive, said: “With NHS waiting lists at record levels, a growing number of people are looking for alternatives and choosing to use the private sector rather than risk prolonged waits and potentially seeing their health deteriorate.

“The number of people using private medical insurance, or opting to ‘self-pay’ for their procedure, has increased despite the difficult economic conditions over the past few years, demonstrating the importance people place on their health,” he added.

Self-pay admissions, where people choose to fund their own healthcare rather than use private health insurance, were also at their highest ever level in 2023. As many as 73,000 admissions were registered in the first three months of the year — 39 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels.

The state of the health service is a key issue for voters ahead of the general election on July 4. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats plan to put the ruling Conservatives’ government record on the NHS at the heart of their campaigns. 

Patients were waiting for about 7.54mn appointments at the end of March, according to NHS England data. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had similarly large waiting lists.

Policy experts warn that the sharp increase in people opting for private procedures could reduce NHS staffing capacity, as doctors take on more private work leaving them with less time to treat NHS patients.

However, private practitioners argue that the sector is helping to reduce waiting lists for routine operations in the overstretched health service. The majority of procedures carried out by the private sector are hip and knee replacements and increasingly ophthalmology, particularly for cataracts.

The number of people covered by health insurance reached 5.8mn in 2022, according to the latest industry data — the highest level since 2008.

PHIN data is collected from over 600 private hospitals across the UK and more than 10,000 consultants.

Additional reporting by Amy Borrett

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