Published: 27/05/2004, Volume II4, No. 5907 Page 5

A package to bail out a former private hospital bought by the NHS to cut heart surgery waiting lists has been agreed by senior managers.

Three years ago University College London Hospital trust paid£27m for the Heart Hospital - at the time a luxury private hospital run by Parkway Healthcare.

The move was hailed by Number 10 as a triumph of NHS commercial innovation. Then health minister Hazel Blears described it as a 'heaven-sent opportunity', and the acquisition was applauded by the Commons public accounts committee.

But the near-disappearance of waiting lists for routine heart surgery has left the trust fighting to attract the necessary work to ensure the hospital is financially viable.

Having suffered£5.2m losses over the last financial year, the hospital will now partly be used as a London-wide electrophysiology centre, following a decision by the trust last week.

Trust board papers described the option, which could generate activity valued at£1.5m, as having 'high to moderate risk', and its success would depend on attracting work from 'Hammersmith, Reading and the South West peninsula'.

It was only eight months ago that UCLH chief executive Robert Naylor launched a high-profile bid to generate income for the hospital by promising to wipe out the entire national waiting list for routine cardio-vascular surgery within 12 months.

But waiting lists were already falling dramatically. This month's board papers conceded: 'It was not possible despite marketing and other efforts to secure additional surgical workload. This in the main has been due to the dramatic reduction of the national waiting list for cardiac surgery.'

According to Heart Hospital director Neil Griffiths, business was hit by the London patient choice programme, which allowed patients at trusts in the capital waiting more than six months to choose from a range of options for their treatment.

He told HSJ: 'I think in the end many chose to go to the private sector and so a lot of money was spent there instead. It may have been better if patients had been given the choice of coming to our trust.'

Unison regional officer Phil Thompson said: 'It is ludicrous that the DoH spent vast sums of money in the private sector when there was the option of doing it at an NHS hospital which had been bought for£30m specifically to cut waiting lists...You could argue that UCLH was stitched up.'

The long-term plan for The Heart Hospital is eventually to move cardiac services to the main campus at the trust, although no decision has been taken on what the hospital itself will be used for.

Mr Griffiths denied the trust had been wrong to buy the hospital.

He claimed: 'It has played a major role in cutting waiting lists down to the point where they no longer exist - that has got to be a positive benefit for patients. This is about managing the fact we are dealing with changing circumstances and the need to shift from cardiac surgery to cardiology. The hospital is a fantastic facility.'