A BMI Healthcare hospital told doctors to delay NHS operations in order to encourage patients to go private, it has been revealed.
Bernie Creaven, executive director of the BMI Meriden Hospital in Coventry, told consultants to implement an immediate four-week postponement of NHS work referred to the hospital, to be extended to a minimum of eight weeks by September.
The Department of Health described the practice as "unacceptable" and said it would be contacting BMI to discuss the matter. Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called on the government to cancel all its contracts with BMI.
In the letter, dated 13 July and passed to the Independent,
Creaven told the hospital’s consultants that imposing the delays would add to the “differentiation" between an NHS and private service, and could encourage more people to go private.
The letter said: “Over the past few months I have had numerous discussions with consultants regarding the lack of differentiation between NHS and private patients and there is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lack of differentiation has had a negative effect on our private patient referrals.
"I now wish to implement with immediate effect a new rule which will mean that operations on NHS Choose and Book patients will not be able to take place until at least four weeks following their outpatient consultation. Also, in each subsequent month, I will extend this by another week until September and the time will be eight weeks from initial consultation. I believe that this time to access the system is probably the most critical factor for some private patients converting to NHS patients.”
The private pay market has been adversely affected by the recession, while NHS referrals, which are less profitable, have slowed. Last year General Healthcare Group, the parent company of BMI, reported an 11% fall in earnings.
Commenting on the letter, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “Minimum waiting times that do not take account of healthcare needs of patients are unacceptable. Decisions on treatments, including suitability for surgery, should be made by clinicians based on what is best for the patient. This applies regardless of whether a hospital is run by the NHS or the independent sector.
"We will therefore be contacting BMI to ensure that NHS patients are not disadvantaged."
Responding to the news, a spokesperson for BMI Healthcare said: “We treat both NHS and private patients to the same high standards of clinical quality.
"Like any responsible provider of healthcare, we have to manage non-urgent surgical appointments to ensure we can meet the medical needs of all our patients. This includes preserving capacity for critically unwell private patients as well as clinically urgent NHS patients.
“Recently we have had more clinically urgent NHS patients referred to us under contract with local NHS hospitals. This has meant the Meriden Hospital has introduced arrangements to manage appointments for non-urgent surgery for some of its NHS Choose & Book patients. This is to minimise the risk of any patients needing to be rescheduled. NHS Choose & Book patients continue to be treated in line with their clinical needs and the requirements of the NHS Constitution and the NHS organisations that commission our services.”
(Pictured: Stephen Collier, chief executive of BMI Healthcare)