UK hospitals relying more on fee-paying patients; critics slam `two-tier' NHS

With the National Health Service (NHS) budget under pressure, hospitals in England are increasingly relying on income from fee-paying patients.

One in six hospitals in England had expanded private treatment options this year, as critics warned of a ''two-tier'' NHS, in which those being able to afford making payment, getting the quickest and best treatment.

According to trust managers, paying patients were not allowed to ''jump the queue'' for services. However, according to doctors, the practice ''undermines the principle of equity that should be at the heart of the NHS''.

Though most NHS trusts already offered some private services to their patients, however, according to new figures obtained in an investigation by the British Medical Journal, the range of treatments available had expanded as cost pressures on the health service increased.

Changes to government rules under the coalition meant that hospitals were allowed to raise up to 49 per cent of funds through non-NHS work – a massive increase over the 2 per cent cap set by the Labour government.

Twenty-one trusts introduced new private treatments for 2013-14 – or ''self-funded'' services, as they are often euphemistically called, while 90 per cent of NHS trusts already offered some form of private service to patients – often for treatments that were not available any longer on the NHS, or had long wait lists or high treatment thresholds.

Meanwhile, according to commentators, the colourful depiction of the NHS in the Olympic opening ceremony 12 months ago could not be further removed from the sad reality of lack of care and compassion in the scandal-stricken organisation.

Meanwhile, even as health secretary Jeremy Hunt traded insults with his Labour predecessor Andy Burnham about staffing levels, high mortality rates etc, the political partisanship of both men distracted attention from the huge differentials in care that were now evident.

The fact that just one NHS body, North Lincolnshire & Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in one region had been placed in special measures effectively meant that standards at other local hospitals had been deemed to be acceptable or better, which needed to be acknowledged.

However, commentators point out that a cultural change would be required if Hunt's new inspection regimes were to be sufficiently robust. They point out that the simple fact was that countless deaths could have been avoided if hospital staff were prepared to listen to the complaints of patients and their families about sub-standard care rather than dismissing them out of hand.