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Care UK asks GPs to refer patients to ‘self-pay’ treatment service

GPs have been sent a letter from private healthcare company Care UK outlining a new ‘self-pay service’ that offers procedures to patients who are willing to pay for treatment.

The letter, which was sent to GPs in Bristol, details ‘a self-pay option’ that aims to help ‘patients receive the treatment they need when their access to NHS funded care has been restricted or delayed’.

However, local leaders have warned that it puts GPs in an awkward position as to whether to refer, and is a step towards further privatisation of the health service.

The service, which is available at Emersons Green treatment centre in Bristol and another centre in Devizes, Wiltshire, will use ‘unused theatre time to give easy, affordable access to procedures which have been restricted or de-prioritised by NHS commissioners’, according to a statement from Care UK. 

The private provider, which also runs nine NHS treatment centres, is offering procedures ranging from earwax removal for £160 to total knee replacements for £9,860 as well as vasectomies for £1,153, according to Emersons Green treatment centre website.

CCGs have previously come under fire for capping the number of vasectomy referrals GPs can make and demanding that obese people lose weight prior to hip and knee replacement therapy.

Dr Simon Bradley, director of One Care, a GP provider body representing all GPs in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, said the service puts GPs ‘in a double bind’.

He said: ‘It will leave many GPs in a double bind, wanting to do what’s best for their patients and the patient in front of them, and also what’s best for the NHS, which will be not to refer.’

But he added: ‘It will always be that we have to treat the patients in front of you first and if the private service meets their needs better then, I think our obligation is to refer to the private service.’

Dr Bradley said that this does represent a step towards the privatisation of some NHS services, which runs ‘counter to the ethos of the NHS’ as it leaves some people waiting for treatments that others can afford to pay for.

A spokesperson from NHS Bristol CCG confirmed that they will not be encouraging GPs to offer Care UK’s self-pay service to patients.

They said: ‘As a private provider of healthcare they are able to offer self-pay treatments for patients, completely separate from the NHS.

‘We are keen to stress there will continue to be a clear separation between NHS and private treatments.’ 

Pulse has previously reported private hospitals are capitalising on the underfunding of the NHS by expanding their services, focusing on areas subject to rationing drives or long waiting lists.

Former GPC chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul warned at the time that this would allow private providers to ‘cherry-pick low-risk patients, adding further strain onto impoverished NHS hospitals caring for patients with greater morbidity’.

A Care UK spokesperson added: ‘Importantly, our clinicians receive no financial incentive to treat self-pay patients and their decision is based purely on clinical need. We follow strict legal guidelines to ensure that the request to explore self-pay is initiated by the patient.’ 

They added that NHS referrals will still be the provider’s ‘core work’ with Emersons Green and Devizes treatment centres still continuing ‘to see NHS funded patients for the same range of services as we have been doing in recent years’.