Private treatment centres are proving to be a success in terms of offering high-quality patient care, but their achievements are being hampered by a slow uptake of services, an analysis by the Confederation of British Industry has found.

Independent Sector Treatment Centres 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 NHS’ already stretched resources and slash waiting lists by carrying out routine surgical procedures such as knee and hip replacements as well as diagnostic tests.

The CBI’s the first comprehensive analysis of ISTCs has concluded that, in terms of patient care, the centres are proving to be a real success offering “increased choice for patients, excellent satisfaction ratings and very high standards of cleanliness”. In fact, the report goes so far as to say: “ISTCs deserve to be championed as an example of how excellence in the NHS can be achieved.”

However, opposition to private sector involvement in the health service remains strong, and the achievements of private centres are being held back by the fact that they are being underused by the health service. The first wave of centres launched in 2003 are providing an average of 84% of contracted procedures, but actual figures range from as little as 48% in one centre to as much as 102% in another.

“When procurements for these centres are delayed and poorly specified, and when centres are set up without buy-in from local NHS providers, projects are unlikely to be a success,” it asserts.

Commitment waning?
Furthermore, the government’s commitment to the initiative seems to be in danger of fizzling out, with just nine of the 27 centres in the second wave of schemes given the green light and, of those left, 11 were given the chop and seven a stay of execution. The fact that strategic health authorities are to take over responsibility for ISTCs at a regional level also adds further uncertainty to the mix, and the CBI says it is concerned that additional cancellations to proposed schemes “would be seen as the government going cold on reform”.

“ISTCs are an NHS success story…but the government has sent mixed signals as to whether it thinks such a challenge is still necessary,” remarked Neil Bentley, CBI director of public services. “Committing to independent sector treatment centres represents a commitment to reform. They should be seen as a long-term force for good in the NHS,” he stressed.

David Worskett, Director of the NHS Partners Network, welcomed the report’s findings, and said that his organisation is “confident that the public will in future be asking for more not less independent sector provision within the overall NHS framework.”