CAPACITY DoH offers 'flexible' deals on scans following concerns

Published: 24/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5944 Page 6

Primary care trusts will only pay for the services they actually use under new plans for a£1bn deal with the independent sector to 'end hidden waits' for diagnostic services.

Last week health secretary John Reid said it would equate to an extra 1.4 million scans. This would bring average waiting times for scans down to three weeks and help meet the manifesto pledge for all NHS patients to be treated within 18 weeks by 2008.

Within the next fortnight the Department of Health will announce a second wave of private elective surgery contracts. At the same time ministers will demonstrate the success of the programme's first wave.

The new diagnostic proposals will buy an extra 1.4 million magnetic resonance imaging, computerised tomography and non-gynaecological ultrasound scans over five years. The Department of Health said the PCT funding allocated this month contains an extra£200m to pay for diagnostic services.

The DoH said PCTs will pay only for what they use, with the health secretary signing a contract with successful bidders from the private sector and the DoH holding the 'central risk for unused diagnostics'.

The move is being seen as an indication that the DoH has listened to concerns about a previous private diagnostics deal last June where PCTs had to sign block contracts worth a total of£90m with Alliance Medical.

Last November, five MRI 'cluster leads' charged with implementing the deal wrote to the DoH complaining of poor quality and unacceptable waits for results.

They warned of delays in returning scans - with some taking five or six weeks to come back, instead of the usual two to five days. Other scans were misinterpreted and the NHS suffered financial loss because the contract was underused.

Erewash PCT chief executive Paula Clarke said the DoH seemed to be taking on board the message that PCTs need flexibility when it comes to contracting with private providers. 'If they are going to do it that way then it has got to be good because we will not have the huge problems that we had previously.' Professor Adrian Dixon of the Royal College of Radiologists has been appointed DoH 'guardian' of the contract with Alliance Medical.

He said the news of extra capacity was welcome, but added: 'We would hope that the speed with which the first wave was set up will not be emulated in the second wave - it has got to be done with a little more propriety.' A spokesman for Alliance Medical said that the company would be interested in the latest proposals.

He added that the initial 'teething problems' had been ironed out with waiting times now down to four or five days.