Published: 02/12/2004, Volume II4, No. 5934 Page 8

Ministers in Scotland are due to announce plans before Christmas to make greater use of the private sector to help cut NHS waits.

Health minister Andy Kerr is expected to announce a dramatic increase in private capacity in Scotland which will see significantly more patients treated by independent providers.

Ministers have denied it is a U-turn, claiming that the NHS has made use of the private sector for years.

But it is expected that private companies will be drafted in at unprecedented levels and in a far more systematic way than previously.

Mr Kerr confirmed last week that he had been in talks with private providers about potentially awarding three or five-year contracts to do NHS work.

One source confirmed to HSJ that organisations from Scotland and England had been invited to the meeting, leading some to speculate that patients might be sent south of the border for treatment.

This, however, was denied by a Scottish Executive source.

The private sector has always been marginal in Scotland - and was made even more so in 2002 when the Executive bought the country's largest private hospital, the HCI, near Glasgow, which has been renamed the Golden Jubilee Hospital.

Today there are fewer than 200 beds in Scotland's handful of private hospitals and even fewer private providers of primary care.

The move has raised concerns that private capacity will be built at the expense of the NHS. Dr Peter Terry, chair of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said:

'Diverting investment from the NHS to the private sector will do little to solve the problems of the NHS in the long term.' The latest figures on waiting in NHS Scotland, released last Thursday, however, show the Executive cannot afford to sit on its hands.

The number of patients waiting rose to an all-time high of 112,537, up 1,876 on the previous year. Of these, 7,512 had been waiting more than six months.

The figures also showed that at 30 September 53,432 patients had been waiting more than six months for an outpatient appointment, the first time this statistic had been recorded.