Private health insurance is growing

Growing number of people are paying for private health insurance, says Dr David Turner

“Do you have private health insurance? This is a question I have rarely asked until the past two years. But I now ask this question to most patients who need an elective referral.

A recent survey showed that one in six adults would be willing to use the private sector for healthcare if the wait for NHS treatment was longer than 18 weeks. Meanwhile, one in eight adults who have struggled to access NHS services during the Covid pandemic have opted for private healthcare.

These statistics do not surprise me. Anecdotally, I see more and more of my wealthiest patients paying for private health insurance. What is more worrying is that my less well-off patients without private insurance, who are unwilling or unable to wait for NHS treatment, are paying for private treatment with savings or loans.

Health care in Britain is rapidly disintegrating into a two-tier service – and it’s not just patients who turn to private care when the NHS fails to meet their needs. Doctors are too.

Many newly graduated GPs and mid-career family doctors are also fed up. Over the past year I have heard of many doctors who have moved to work for the growing number of private GP services springing up in and around London and the South East.

I fear we are headed for a situation where we will pay a Scandinavian level of taxation for an American level of public services – the worst of all worlds.

It’s not hard to imagine a time, not too distant from now, when the NHS is basically there for A&E, cancer, heart attacks and strokes, motherhood and paediatrics. “Less serious” services, such as dermatology, rheumatology, ophthalmology, orthopaedics, physiotherapy and mental health services, will be piecemeal at best. All but the poorest will go to the private sector rather than wait several months or years for an appointment in these specialties.

An arthritic hip or cataract may not kill you, but it can make life very miserable. Moreover, it is we GPs who have to absorb the misery and frustration of patients at the NHS’ failing elective treatment service.

“More funding” is generally presented as the knee-jerk response to this problem, but unfortunately I think we are well past that stage. The NHS workforce is so worn out and demoralized that no amount of money could ever fix the problem.

I think we have to accept that the NHS can no longer be the cradle of a full and free service for all. Treatment for very serious conditions will remain, but as with everything else, overt rationing – rather than the covert form we have now – will need to be in place.

NHS leaders must be honest with the public and stop persisting in the illusion that the health service can continue to provide all types of treatment for everyone, because it simply cannot.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but we no longer live in the UK Bevan lived in in 1948.

Dr David Turner is a GP in Hertfordshire

About Evelyn C. Heim

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