Private hospital network schemes have come under attack from rival providers and consultants, who claim medical insurance companies are disguising anti-competitive tactics beneath 'a cloak of unnecessary secrecy'.

Heart Hospital chair Sir Richard Needham used a platform at market analyst Laing and Buisson's annual acute healthcare conference to launch a blistering attack on insurance company PPP, which failed to include Heart Hospital in its list of approved providers.

Sir Richard called for 'greater transparency' in the information companies made available so that they could no longer use 'a cloak of unnecessary secrecy and a cloak of protectionism' to disguise conflicts of interest.

Hospital Consultants and Surgeons Association president Winston Peters also criticised the schemes as 'a commercial devil wearing the mask of quality' which would come back to 'haunt the industry' by ultimately creating monopoly providers.

PPP later insisted: 'We choose hospitals for our network by competitive tender based on the quality, value and range of services offered, irrespective of its status or ownership.'

In the wake of the Commons health select committee's report on private healthcare, speakers were keen to flag up quality initiatives.

Keith Biddlestone, director of BUPA's Health Care Partnerships, said protocols for prior approval for hysterectomies - based on guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists - had been introduced in the wake of the Rodney Ledward scandal and research suggesting that one quarter of ovaries removed were found to be healthy.

But Mr Peters said protocols which overruled the GP's gatekeeper role could mean that patients were refused surgery on the 'distant advice' of an insurance assessor.

John Lambie, chair of Action for the Proper Regulation of Private Hospitals, called for more research into numbers of patients transferred from independent hospitals to the NHS as emergencies. A recent, informal survey by the Intensive Care Society found that between 500 and 1,000 patients were transfered from private hospitals to NHS care per year, at an estimated cost of£3m.

Mr Lambie asked speaker Professor Brian Williams from Nottingham University: 'Are too many operations being carried out in private hospitals without the staff and back-up facilities?'

Professor Williams said he was 'agnostic' on the topic, which needed much more explanation.

But consultant anaesthetist Dr Peter Knappit, director of Bradford Royal Infirmary's York Suite, blamed a 'surgeon-driven' push to treat patients who were not always fit for surgery.