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US health giant plans network of super-surgeries

United Health Europe unveils strategy to be major player in general practice within five years

By Ian Cameron

One of the world's biggest health care providers has revealed its intention to set up super-surgeries across the UK within the next five years.

UnitedHealth Europe plans to take advantage of the Government's forthcoming White Paper and provide direct competition against GPs.

In an exclusive interview with Pulse, Dr Richard Smith, chief executive of UnitedHealth Europe, said the company would first target inner city areas before expanding.

He said the company ­ part of the giant US-based UnitedHealth Group ­ would help 'keep the NHS alive'.

Dr Smith, former editor of the BMJ, criticised GP services as 'pretty damn poor for lots of people' and said the current primary care system had failed to deliver.

He said: 'The big failing of general practice is that it's best in leafy green places. It's time to try something different.'

Dr Smith's comments came on the eve of the release of the White Paper, which will propose an increase in private competition against GPs. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has indicated the paper will seek to end the 'inverse care law' in which areas with greatest need often have the fewest GPs.

United has already agreed to to take over two GP practices in Derby. It also established the Evercare case management system for long-term conditions.

Dr Smith said he agreed with Paul Corrigan, Tony Blair's special adviser on health, that the future of primary care lay in much bigger care practices.

He said: 'We are confident we can work to the best level of general practice but then we would like to go beyond that, to transform primary care.'

He added: 'The small business model has done a lot of good but it's not really enough.

'If you have 30,000 patients you can have more specialists, more diagnostics, even gyms and health food shops.'

Professor Allyson Pollock, chair of health policy and health services research at University College London, said United was adopting classic market behaviour.

She said: 'They are not interested in small GP practices. This is not a charitable act but a cynical move.'

Dr James Kingsland, chair of the National Association of Primary Care and a GP in Wallasey, Wirral, said GPs would have to take note, adding: 'The commercial sector will be helpful, but it's not the only solution.'


Who wants to offer GP services?

  • UnitedHealth Europe - runs Evercare and two practices in Derby
  • Serco - out of hours services in Cardiff and Cornwall, long-term conditions contract in Newham
  • Mercury Health - Manages 18 practices. Bought GP-run Chilvers-McRae
  • General Medical Clinics - walk-in centre in Liverpool Street Station
  • Atos Origin - commuter walk-in centre in Manchester
  • Virgin Group - wants to enter primary care 'in the longer term'

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