Fears of ‘two-tier NHS’ as GPs allow fee-paying patients to jump the queue

MPs claim Dorset Private GP service, at up to £145 per appointment, will mean NHS patients without money will wait even longer for care.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Fears of ‘two-tier NHS’ as GPs allow fee-paying patients to jump the queue” was written by Denis Campbell Health policy editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th February 2017 19.48 UTC

Family doctors in Bournemouth have set up the first private GP service at which people who pay up to £145 a time will be seen faster and get longer appointments than their NHS patients.

The creation of the clinic has prompted fears that other GPs will follow suit and that NHS patients will become “second-class citizens” as general practice increasingly becomes a two-tier health service.

The three doctors running the Dorset Private GP service are offering “the unhurried, thorough, personal care we believe is best for patients” – at a price. Patients pay £40 for a 10-minute phone consultation, £80 for a 20-minute face-to-face appointment and £145 for 40 minutes with a GP.

“With the NHS sometimes struggling to offer a quality service now is the time to choose a private doctor,” according to the website for the trio’s venture. They offer times that suit patients and the chance to see the same GP at each visit, benefits that few NHS patients are offered any more because of the heavy and growing pressures on family doctor surgeries.

Those who pay receive their appointment at the same Poole Road Medical Centre in Bournemouth where the GPs see the NHS patients on their practice list. However, private patients in effect jump the queue to be seen as they can get appointments on the day, whereas ordinary patients can wait up to four weeks for an appointment lasting just seven minutes.

GPs are barred under the terms of their contract from offering private medical services to patients on their practice list. However, the Dorset Private GP service is not breaking any rules because it is only offering the service to other people.

“This looks like the thin end of the wedge. There are really worrying signs that a two-tier NHS is emerging under Theresa May’s leadership,” said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary.

“The relentless underfunding of healthcare has meant that practitioners in many parts of the country are struggling to keep the service going, but the news that private patients are being offered the chance to skip the queue comes as a real shock.”

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, warned that the service risked opening up a divide between those who can and cannot afford to pay upfront charges for healthcare.

“We are also witnessing increasing numbers of people, who have the resources to do so, opting out of the NHS to fast-track treatment. The inevitable result will be a two-tier system. Those without money will just be left waiting longer for care.

“There will be a great temptation for some GPs involved to prioritise private work over NHS work. This would lead to NHS patients being treated as second-class citizens,” he added.

Dr Tim Alder, the main GP behind the scheme, defended the setting-up of the service and warned that NHS general practice was on “the brink of collapse” and heading for privatisation because it was underfunded, facing a serious staff shortage and unable to cope with demand.

“Five years ago there would be far more people saying ‘how dare you do this to the NHS’ and ‘you’re causing it to fall apart by doing this’, rather than the other way around. But now most people understand why and are quite interested. They see it as an option for the future themselves,” Alder told the Southern Daily Echo.

“I’d love to be able to say ‘you can have 20 minutes with me on the NHS’, but that is not going to happen until we have twice as many GPs. We certainly won’t be using NHS resources, we’ll use ours, which means if we do this in NHS time, we’ll find cover for that,” he added.

Alder predicted that NHS underfunding of general practice and the takeover of surgeries by private firms such as Virgin Care could lead to GP surgeries – which are private businesses and not controlled by the NHS – charging all patients.

“Sadly the NHS is no longer prioritising [quality general practice] and we can see a time when traditional GPs are private and the majority of patients are instead seen in clinics based in hospitals like minor A&E departments. The personal touch and the ‘whole patient’ knowledge will be lost,” Alder added.

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