Private hospitals and clinics will come under an unprecedented level of scrutiny if plans set out by the Department of Health last week are implemented.

A consultation document, Developing the Way Forward , sets out wide-ranging powers for the proposed regulatory body for the private healthcare industry to look at clinics and hospitals 'in the round'.

It will also, for the first time, be able to demand adherence to specific standards.The consultation document sets out in detail the DoH's intentions for the National Care Standards Commission, the regulatory body which will be created by the Care Standards Bill.

The main aim of the new system will be to ensure that private hospitals and clinics have in place 'appropriate safeguards and quality-assurance systems for patients'. Instead of a 'one size fits all' regulatory approach, based on the requirements of nursing homes, each private establishment will be registered under the appropriate category, according to size and range of services offered.

General standards will cover areas such as staffing, the treatment environment, control of drugs, record-keeping and quality. Specific standards will plug the gaps in the current system - for instance, requiring acute hospitals to have access to back-up intensive care facilities, including clear agreements with local NHS hospitals where in-house intensive care does not exist.

The NCSC is given the power to investigate complaints from patients and their families about breaches of service regulations or standards, and to refer complaints about individual clinical competence to the relevant professional regulatory body.

Where establishments provide services for NHS and private patients, the NCSC and the Commission for Health Improvement will 'liaise on handling their distinct responsibilities'.

Sally Taber, head of operational policy for the Independent Healthcare Association, insisted that private hospitals and clinics were ready to meet the new standards: 'Our members will be very comfortable with this.'

The proposals will be out to consultation for the next 12 months.

Regulating Private and Voluntary Healthcare: developing the way forward.

www.doh.gov.uk/regulate4.htm