news focus: After one unsuccessful launch, a chain of private GP clinics are looking to bring their healing touch back to the high street. Jack Shamash reports

Published: 04/04/2002, Volume II2, No. 5799 Page 12 13

Six years ago a series of Medicentre clinics were opened in London, offering a private GP service to anyone prepared to pay. They were bright, snazzy, had a great logo and a big advertising budget. They also flopped miserably.

Last year, the company was bought by new owners who boast they can turn the handful of Medicentre sites into a nationwide chain within two years. Just as Whitecross or Boots Dentalcare have established large chains of dental surgeries, Medicentre hopes to establish the first branded chain of GP surgeries.

And it points to the fact the market for private primary care is largely untapped. According to analysts Laing and Buisson, only 3 per cent of GP consultations are done privately. By contrast, 14 per cent of hospital operations are carried out privately.

When it started trading, Medicentre seemed well placed to break into this potentially lucrative market. It was opened by Sinclair Montrose, a group with large nursing homes and associated property interests.

Its first clinics were in central London mainline stations to attract highly paid commuters who might prefer to pay for a private consultation rather than take time off work.

Unfortunately for Sinclair Montrose, all but one of its 11 clinics lost money and six of them closed. The clinics offered a noappointment service, but this meant that GPs had to hang around waiting for prospective patients. The clinics were attacked by Health Which? magazine for their quality of care. Health Which? found the clinics were forced to rely on patients for details of past treatment and health problems. Researchers posing as patients were given repeat prescriptions for potentially addictive painkillers. The final disgrace came when then public health minister Tessa Jowell attacked their lax standards in Parliament.

Last June, the Medicentre chain was sold to a company owned by Kerim Lalani - a businessman who runs a chain of convenience stores in railway stations and airports.

Medicentre's new strategy has been created by managing director Julia Wall, whose background is in catering management. She explained: 'We want to combine medical ethics with retail business sense. We have got a strong brand image and lots of repeat business, but we need more focus.'

Over the next two years, she expects to double the size of the business in London before spreading across the country.

Since she took over, the clinics have been led by GPs rather than managers. And the clinical staff have fortnightly meetings. 'We want them to discuss commercial activity and ethical issues. If we can't provide a good medical service, people will not come.'

She wants more corporate customers. She has secured contracts with train operator Connex and is selling treatments, including GP consultations, health screening and flu jabs, to other firms.

Previously, Medicentre did not offer continuity of care.

Consequently, it could not refer patients to hospitals.

But clinical director Dr Johan du Plessis says this is no longer a problem. 'We are building up relationships with consultants, to whom we can refer our patients. If our patients have private health insurance, they will be covered for whatever treatment these consultants advise.'

With all these changes and the opening of two new Medicentres in central London, Ms Wall expects turnover to rise from£250,000 to£500,000 a month by the end of this year, and the number of GPs employed to rise from 16 to 30. She also hopes to see modest profits.

Dr du Plessis is upbeat about future prospects. 'We are actually giving a full GP service to many patients.' He believes that a Medicentre will be a good place to work and that doctors will benefit from managerial training: 'GPs enjoy the combination of medical and commercial fields, ' he says.

Medicentres certainly look the part. Consulting rooms are small but modern and there are waiting rooms with free cups of coffee and racks of magazines for the harassed executive. And during a recent visit, HSJ found a handful of patients prepared to pay the cost -£49 for a first GP consultation and£35 for a repeat visit.

The company sounds optimistic but over the last few years a number of firms have tried to crack the potential market for private primary care and failed.A scheme by BUPA was brought to a halt;

Private Patient Plan's personal GP service has failed to attract more than a couple of hundred patients and the grandly titled Network for Private General Practice has turned out to be no more than a list of GPs prepared to take on private work.

However, private general practice could be an idea whose time has come. Among GPs, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the NHS. If Medicentre provided a viable alternative, there would certainly be many GPs who would take the private shilling.