Researchers have called into question the continued push for Independent Sector Treatment Centres when little evidence exists to show that they actually improve health service capacity or quality of care.

ISTCs emerged in 2003 as part of the government’s rolling programme of health reform, and are designed to take some of the heat off of the National Health Services’ stretched resources by boosting capacity as well as slashing waiting lists by carrying out routine surgical procedures such as knee and hip replacements and diagnostic tests.

But Professor Allyson Pollock and Sylvia Godden from the University of Edinburgh claim in the British Medical Journal to have uncovered “a worrying failure” on the Department of Health’s part to collect and publish data on the performance of such centres, information which is crucial to assessing their contribution to the health service.

The researchers warn that continued support for the programme will actually “contribute to National Health Service deficits, NHS service closure and staff redundancies”, and point to growing evidence that funds set aside for the NHS are being siphoned off to the private sector to pay services they were contracted to provide but have failed to do so.

“The policy of diverting scarce NHS funds into independent sector treatment centres is leading to fragmentation and financial instability and NHS beds and services are being closed to make way for the for-profit private sector,” said Professor Pollock. “Despite assurances by the secretary of state for health, Alan Johnson, the available evidence suggests that the private sector is profiting at the expense of patients, the public, and the NHS,” he concluded.

CBI support
But a recent analysis by the Confederation of British Industry published earlier this month claims that private treatment centres are proving to be a success in terms of offering high-quality patient care, although it stressed that their achievements are being hampered by a slow uptake of services.

The centres are proving to be a real success offering “increased choice for patients, excellent satisfaction ratings and very high standards of cleanliness”, the report claims, and goes so far as to say that: “ISTCs deserve to be championed as an example of how excellence in the NHS can be achieved.”