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Privately run walk-in centres 'less cost effective', study finds

By Lilian Anekwe

Walk-in centres could deliver better value for money if they are provided by the NHS instead of private contractors, primary care researchers have concluded.

An evaluation of six pilot walk-in centres located in commuter train stations concluded that offering contracts to deliver these services to private providers commits the health service to an expensive contract ‘that can lead to a very high price per patient'.

Train station walk-in centres were launched by the Department of Health in 2004 as part of a £50million change to primary care services, with seven being funded for five years.

Researchers evaluated six of the seven on performance in a number of indicators between 2005 and 2007.

The average number of patients attending each centres was between 33 and 101 per day, which researchers said was ‘considerably lower than the planned capacity of 150-180'.

The estimated cost to the NHS of providing a private walk-in centre for the 5-year period was £3m for London based services and £2.6m for out of London services.

If the centres operated at their planned capacity, the cost per attendance would be £13. But based on actual daily attendance, cost per attendance varied by centre from £21 to £62.

Lead researcher Dr Alicia O'Cathain, senior research fellow at the school of health and related research at the University of Sheffield, questioned ‘whether commuter walk-in centres are the most cost-effective way of increasing access to care for minor illness in a working population.'

The research was published in the December issue of the British Journal of General Practice, along with an editorial written by the high-profile health policy researcher Professor Allyson Pollock.

In her editorial Professor Pollock, professor of international public health policy at the University of Edinburgh, launched a scathing attack on the Government policy on privately provided walk in centres, which she said provide nothing more than ‘instant gratification for the walking well'.

‘The question is: what [are] the opportunity costs for the NHS, patients, staff, and citizens of paying too much for these private-sector white elephants? How many services have been cut to pay for care? How much care have older people, the frail, or chronically sick had to forego to satisfy the whims and needs of the walking well?'

Walk-in centres provided by the NHS rather than private contractors are more cost-effective, researchers found Walk-in centres provided by the NHS rather than private contractors are more cost-effective, researchers found

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