Revealed: NHS trusts tell patients they can go private and skip hospital queues

NHS trusts with record waiting lists are promoting ‘quick and easy’ private healthcare services in their own hospitals, offering patients the chance to skip years of queues observer can reveal. 

Hospitals offer hip replacements from £10,000, cataract surgery from £2,200 and hernia repairs from £2,500. MRI scans are offered for between £300 and £400.

This comes as figures show a record 7.21million people waiting for NHS treatment in England, routinely exceeding the maximum waiting time of 18 weeks for non-urgent referrals. Health experts warn of the danger of creating a “two-tier” healthcare system. On observer Investigation has revealed:

  • The East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust has thousands of patients awaiting diagnostic tests but is offering “quick access” to scans through its private department.
  • Great Western Hospitals NHS Trust in Wiltshire is warning patients that services are “extremely busy” while its private department is promoting self-pay treatment for those who “don’t want to wait for an NHS referral”.
  • James Paget University Hospitals NHS Trust in Norfolk advertises private services on its NHS website, stating: “We provide highly experienced, consultant-led services… with no waiting list.”

The premium treatments are provided through private patient units owned and operated by NHS trusts, usually located on hospital premises. Procedures are often carried out by the same staff who would ultimately treat patients if they remained on the NHS waiting list. Under a code of practice, private services cannot impact NHS patient care and profits go back to the health service.

Sussex Premier Health, part of the East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, is doing MRI scans in 48 hours for £379, according to a recent Instagram promotion. The Trust has more than 7,800 patients awaiting diagnostic testing.

Sussex Premier Health MRI scan promotion. Photo: Instagram/sussexpremierhealth

Great Western Hospitals NHS Trust in Wiltshire provides private health care through a 20 bed unit, the Shalfourne suite. The private patient website states: “We believe that quality healthcare should be easily accessible.”

A woman whose elderly mother was treated by the Trust in October claims she was told she could avoid long waiting lists if she paid. “My 86-year-old mother has to wait two years for the NHS or can see the same surgeon in the same hospital and be treated for £1,200 in two weeks. How is that right?” she wrote on Twitter.

A North East teacher, who asked not to be named, said she borrowed £350 for an MRI scan. “At the appointment there were posters on the walls saying the times for results to be returned: three days for private, three weeks for the NHS.” The scan revealed she had a swollen cyst on her knee, which is treating had to become.

The private Candover Clinic, part of the Hampshire Hospitals NHS Trust. Photo: Instagram/Candoverclinic

Another trust, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Trust, sponsors services through its private Candover clinic. More than 53,500 patients were waiting for non-urgent elective treatment at the foundation in October.

Meanwhile, Kingston Private Health, the private unit of Kingston Hospital’s NHS Trust in south-west London, is offering “rapid access” without “long waiting lists”. Treatments include hip replacements costing £10,100. Patients will be cared for by “skilled NHS nurses”, the website says.

The Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust writes on its private department’s website of a “quick and easy way to get immediate access to the healthcare you need”.

Under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, NHS hospital trusts were allowed to derive up to 49% of their income from private patients. By 2015/16 almost £600m a year was being generated by the NHS treating private patients.

The pandemic and record waiting lists prompted a review of private services by some trusts. The NHS Trust at King’s College Hospital in south London has suspended inpatient and outpatient private services during the pandemic to allow inpatient beds to be used for NHS patients. The stationary service has not yet reopened.

Archie Bland and Nimo Omer take you through the top stories and what they mean for free every weekday morning

Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust, which has some of the longest waiting times in England, says its private patient facilities are “currently being used for NHS services”.

David Rowland, director of the Center for Health and Public Interest, said while it was “potentially defensible” for trusts to offer private services when the NHS was not under pressure, it was “very ethically dubious” during a crisis.

Advocates of private patient units say they can help boost revenue for trusts, but some experts say the benefits are unclear, arguing that if private departments lose money they could drain NHS resources.

Hampshire Hospitals NHS Trust said: “NHS care always comes first. Any revenue generated from our operations will be fully reinvested in the NHS.”

The Great Western Hospital NHS Trust said it has not operated a full private patient unit since Covid and where it offers private treatment “it is out of hours and where there is capacity in empty ambulances”, with NHS patients always “priority care”.

Kingston Hospital NHS Trust said it scaled back private activities over the winter and used the space to ease pressure on the NHS. “Of our 417 adult beds, we currently only have 2 patients in private beds,” a spokesman said.

The Royal Free said it has cut waiting lists over the past two years. “All profits from our private patient unit are reinvested into the trust. It is entirely separate from our NHS capacity and has no impact on the care provided to NHS patients.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said: “NHS hospitals have always been able to generate small extra revenue by treating private patients, which can then be used to improve services for NHS patients.”