The private healthcare sector must stop being complacent and work with, and learn from, the public sector, writes Damien Marmion

Opinion illo

For too long the debate about improving healthcare in Britain has been conducted in silos, as if comparing the public and private sectors was comparing apples and oranges. The reality is that we all have lessons to learn from one another so we can have a race to the top to improve transparency, quality, choice and value for money.

‘The sector needs to innovate and change, otherwise we face a future in which private healthcare is a luxury for very few’

The private healthcare sector has been complacent, believing there will always be demand for a private complement to the NHS, whatever the scale of premium rises. This complacency must end.

The sector needs to innovate and change, so it can demonstrate added quality and better value for money for our customers. Otherwise we face a future in which private healthcare becomes a luxury for the very few.

Key challenges

This is not what customers tell us they want and it is clearly not what anyone in the industry wants. To avoid this, the private sector needs to face up to three key challenges:

  1. Demonstrating superior quality. The sector needs to be more transparent about treatment choices and health outcomes, to help drive up quality even further and to show evidence for this. People expect the NHS to make information about outcomes available. Our customers rightly demand even more of the private sector.
  2. The sector needs to recognise that commissioners with healthcare expertise have both a right and a responsibility to their customers to intervene in the market to deliver better quality and value treatment.
  3. The sector needs to be much more successful at improving value for money for customers. Health insurance premiums have been rising by unsustainable levels due partly to increasing treatment costs, but mainly because of a lack of competition in the healthcare system.

Rapidly increasing costs, however, threaten to drive customers out of the market and so call into question the financial viability of all parties in the sector – hospitals, doctors and insurers.

Common ground

Clearly these are the big challenges of today for the private sector. But what is fascinating to me, both as a doctor and as someone who has been working in healthcare systems around the world in recent years, is how much common ground there is in public and private healthcare. All these challenges apply to the NHS too.

‘There is consensus that change is needed if the country is going to be able to afford the healthcare it demands and deserves’

We know healthcare systems everywhere are facing unprecedented pressures. Costs have been increasing way ahead of inflation. For our customers this means potentially unsustainable premium rises. For the NHS, it means an unprecedented funding challenge.

Just as the only funding the NHS has is taxpayers’ money, the only funding Bupa has are the premiums our members pay. The industry will ultimately fail if it seeks to meet increasing costs by forever raising premiums. Bleeding the patient is not the cure for the sector’s ills.

And, whatever the day-to-day political debates about the NHS, there is consensus that change is needed if the country is going to be able to afford the healthcare it demands and deserves. This is no different in the private sector.

Shared learning

We are adamant that the quality and value of the care provided to patients should never be compromised by vested interests or equally by the business pressures of the organisations providing services, such as the private equity-owned hospital groups.

That is why we called for the current Competition Commission investigation into the private healthcare sector. It is right that the practices and processes in the private healthcare sector are investigated in detail and regulatory action taken to improve competition among hospitals and doctors for the sake of the paying customer and the patient.

With no shareholders or equity owners, our sole aim is to deliver high-quality healthcare to more people for a fair price. We have a responsibility to our members to pursue a value for money agenda that ensures we continue to have a vibrant, innovative, growing private healthcare sector in the UK that is an affordable complement to the NHS.

Doing so is in the interests of the doctors and hospitals we work with, the one in 10 people in the country who have health insurance, and indeed the NHS itself. Last year the private sector provided more than £1bn of care to NHS patients through in excess of 400,000 surgical procedures being carried out in private hospitals.

We all have shared interests and shared challenges. We need to be learning from each other and working together to tackle them.

Dr Damien Marmion is managing director of Bupa’s UK health insurance business