17 December 2004
The government awarded a contract for five more private sector treatment centres this week, despite anecdotal evidence that patients are unhappy with the initiative.
Health minister John Hutton awarded a five-year contract to Mercury Health to operate a network of five treatment centres in the south of England.
They will see 16,000 patients a year and offer a mix of diagnostic, ophthalmology and orthopaedic procedures. The company will receive a guaranteed £214m and the first centre is due to open next autumn.
'Thousands will have their operations more quickly as a result,' Hutton said.
Independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs) are due to provide 250,000 operations per year for NHS patients and are a cornerstone of the government's policies of reducing waiting times and offering patient choice.
However, patients appear to be shunning one of the ISTCs, in Trent and South Yorkshire. GP Jonathan Harte, a member of a local group of doctors and managers set up to reduce waiting lists, said patients preferred to wait nine months for orthopaedic operations rather than be treated within ten weeks by the ISTC.
He feared local PCTs were wasting money as the ISTC has a guaranteed income – almost £100m over five years.
The ISTC's operator, Care UK Afrox Healthcare, said it could not comment on the claims as it did not run the centre that referred patients to its unit.
'We have performed more than 400 orthopaedic procedures… and patient satisfaction is high from the information we have received, such as patients' letters,' it added.