The government is poised to extend the role of the private sector to clinical services from this summer, with a series of publicprivate partnerships in pathology services piloted across the country.

Private companies will bid to provide pathology services in a variety of models, potentially taking over a whole pathology service, including the staff.

The decision to pilot the PPP projects follows a series of secret meetings at the Department of Health at the end of last year, involving private companies and organisations representing pathology staff and services.

Following two meetings discussing pathology and one discussing radiology, many of those involved had heard nothing further. But the DoH believes the ideas discussed at the meetings were positively received, and is now moving ahead on the work.

A DoH spokesperson said it was expected that pilot projects would go ahead in pathology, but that nothing further was planned at this stage in radiology.

The extension of PPP to clinical services was outlined in the NHS plan, which mentioned pathology, imaging and dialysis. The DoH then set up a pathology PPP forum where those involved heard presentations about private provision of pathology services.

It is understood those attending the forum meetings included the companies Quest Diagnostics, Roche Diagnostics, Omni Labs and TDL, accountants KPMG, trade unions MSF and Unison, the Institute of Biomedical Science and the Royal College of Pathologists.

Quest Diagnostics, one of the two major private pathology providers in the US, has run the pathology service for West Middlesex University Hospital trust since 1996. Although there are on-site facilities for rapid testing of specimens, the main pathology service is provided at a separate site, with all pathology staff employed by Quest.

Professor John Lilleyman, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: 'We are not terribly concerned about who owns the service, provided standards are maintained. '

But MSF research and policy officer Colin Adkins said: 'MSF remains unconvinced about the benefits of private sector involvement in pathology services', though the union would continue its dialogue with the DoH.