There has been a significant increase in patients opting for NHS funded treatment in the private sector, latest Department of Health figures on choose and book reveal.

More than one in 20 first outpatient appointments are now made with independent providers. This compares with less than one in 40 in April 2008, when “free choice” was introduced, enabling patients to choose a provider anywhere in the country.

In November 2009, 26,733 outpatient appointments were made with the independent sector through choose and book - 5.5 per cent of the total, compared with 8,928 or 2.3 per cent in April 2008.

More patients pick private care

More patients pick private care

In some areas, nearly 10 per cent of patients are opting for the private sector - 9.4 per cent in NHS East Midlands and 8.1 per cent in NHS South East Coast.

NHS East Midlands said it prioritises giving patients information on choice. NHS South East Coast suggested patients in its area may be more willing to travel for care.

At the other end of the spectrum only 2.2 per cent of London patients go to independent providers - possibly because of the concentration of large teaching hospitals in the capital.

NHS Partners Network director David Worskett said: “Over the last six months we have been seeing a very significant increase in patient referrals. It is very clear that patients are happy to go to independent providers.”

Concern over infections may be important in many people’s choice, as many independent providers have zero MRSA rates, he said.

Although there has been concern about work being pulled out of NHS trusts and making some services unviable if patients opt for the private sector, the continuing growth in total referrals may mean NHS trusts are feeling relatively little pain yet.

A number of independent sector treatment centre providers, coming to the end of their initial contracts, are looking to provide a wider range of procedures, which may further drive the trend.

The DH choose and book figures do not encompass all the NHS funded work done in independent hospitals, which Laing and Buisson put at 314,700 inpatient and day cases in 2008.