When Belinda Andrews-Jones developed back pain so severe it triggered memories of childbirth, she enlisted the help of Britain’s taxpayer-funded NHS.
But the 47-year-old was told it would take months to see a specialist and even then she might not qualify for surgery as her bladder was not affected. She went private, paying around £12,000 to undergo surgery at Spire Southampton hospital to correct a severely protruding spinal disc.
she is not alone The NHS, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in July, has long been seen by Brits as a repository of cherished national values. But with the queue for planned surgery at record levels and long waits for a GP appointment, millions are putting that loyalty aside to buy care in the private sector.
Justin Ash, chief executive of Spire, the UK’s only publicly listed private healthcare group, said the company’s hospital business was experiencing “unprecedented demand”. He added: “Obviously, waiting lists are part of the backdrop.”
Spire said 60 per cent of its target audience were now more likely to consider using a private hospital than before as a result of growing NHS waiting lists.
Going private wasn’t easy for Andrews-Jones. He had to take out a loan and dip into savings from a previous severance pay that he had earmarked for home improvements.
But the business consultancy said it had conducted a “cost-benefit analysis.” Without the operation, she would not be able to work. Within weeks of the surgery, she had secured and started a new job. She still values the NHS and thinks the UK is lucky to have a free healthcare system. But her faith in him has been shaken.
“I just find it very, very frustrating. . . I was in horrible pain and the NHS was not there for me,” she said.
One in 10 Britons used private healthcare before the pandemic, according to OECD figures. But more recent surveys show that NHS shortcomings are pushing more people to pay for treatment.
In winter 2021, IPPR and YouGov found that 12% of the population used some form of paid alternative care, with the proportion rising to 16% for the wealthiest groups. A survey by the Office for National Statistics in December 2022 puts that figure at 13 percent.
With strikes by nurses and ambulance drivers this month, Google searches for “private healthcare” and “private GP” in the UK have trended upwards and reached a peak, far exceeding the highs during the pandemic, when access to public health care was extremely limited. .
David Furness, policy director for the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, which represents private healthcare companies, said a recent IHPN survey showed that more than 1 in 5 people expected to use private healthcare in the next 12 months and nearly Half the public would consider it private. health care if they needed treatment. The historically high level of waiting lists was prompting even those who had never considered it before to seek private treatment, he added.
A separate survey of more than 1,000 UK small, medium and large companies conducted for IHPN noted growing concern about the impact of long waiting lists on productivity and willingness to consider private health insurance for employees.
More than half of the organizations were “concerned that the current increasing NHS wait times may result in employees taking long absences or permanently leaving work due to illness,” Furness said. This rose to more than two thirds of medium or large companies and almost three quarters of those with more than 1,000 employees.
Nearly one in five employers were considering offering private health insurance to their staff next year, rising to nearly four in 10 (37 percent) of companies with more than 1,000 employees, it said.
Spire’s Ash confirmed the trend: “It appears to us that the underlying market for insurance is growing. . . So it’s not just self-pay that’s been growing. It seems that employers are absolutely leaning towards providing more insurance for their employees.”
Large insurers have seen an increase in demand. Aviva said the number of people covered by her private health insurance increased from 0.9 million in 2020 to 1.1 million in 2022.
Meanwhile, provider HCA Healthcare UK said it had seen “steady growth in demand for private healthcare across the board, both in terms of volume and new patients”. The number of new self-pay patients had increased by nearly 20 percent, he said.
Dr Keith Klintworth, managing director of insurer VitalityHealth, said the reasons why more people choose to buy health insurance “are more complex than the NHS expects”.
People wanted to be sure they were getting high-quality and timely treatment, he argued, adding that the use of self-pay for individual procedures over the past year had increased cost awareness and driven home the relative affordability of private insurance.
However, he acknowledged that the pandemic and pressure from the NHS had led people to seek “wider health support”.
One particular area of growth has been primary care. It accounted for more than half of all claims in the year to September 2022, up from just 10 percent in 2015.
However, some policy experts worry about the long-term implications of this trend, fearing a two-tier system could develop, leaving the better-off Brits who have the resources to go private less willing to pay the tax levels needed to support the NHS. .
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said the UK was still far from that “tipping point” in relation to elective surgery, with a substantial majority still being performed on the NHS. But in a “dystopian” sign of the potential shape of things to come, around 50 per cent of the value of dentistry is now held in the private sector.
If the wealthiest feel they have less of a say in the state-funded universal system, the result could be lower quality, Edwards suggested. He quoted social researcher Richard Titmuss, who warned in 1967 that “separate discriminatory services for the poor have always tended to be shoddy services.”