STANDING in a queue for 25 minutes when seven months pregnant, merely to let the receptionist at the ante-natal clinic know you've arrived; failing to see a consultant at all throughout the period of ante-natal care; being treated with unconcern and even rudeness in the middle of the night while struggling to pacify a brand new baby; food so bad you have to send out for a burger - these situations are the downside of childbirth on the NHS. But are they daunting enough to drive you to pay for your delivery at a private hospital?

For the City analyst Jenny Younger, nervousness about the birth of her first daughter, Emily, and a back problem which threatened complications, made her decide to pay for her care at the private wing of Queen Charlotte's hospital. In a more confident mood when expecting her second baby, Alice, she opted for NHS care at the same hospital - enabling her to make a direct comparison between the two.

Fixed appointment times and no protracted wait for ante-natal checks with her chosen consultant were the first benefit of private care. The consultant was much in evidence throughout the lengthy delivery, staff were attentive and considerate at all times, and Jenny had a private room with separate menus from the NHS fare. After a five-day stay because of her back problem the bill came to around pounds 3,000 - paid in the end by her insurer, BCWA, because of a complication which cropped up towards the end of the pregnancy.

Jenny felt she received first-class medical care on each occasion. Under the NHS she saw the same consultant, though he was not present at the delivery. The aftercare was 'cheerful and willing, but sparser' and the hospital's stretched resources were more apparent.

The private wing of an NHS hospital is a relatively cheap way to go private. The AMI Portland Hospital for women and children provides rooms with adjoining bathroom, telephone, colour television, radio, fridge and two-way call system to nursing staff.

On the medical side there is a resident consultant anaesthetist, mobile epidural, neo-natal intensive care - everything down to fitness classes. The Portland advises people to put aside up to pounds 5,000 to cover the cost. This would allow for a normal delivery with a four- or five-night stay.

The price is made up of many elements. There is a 24-hour procedure normal delivery charge at pounds 950, which includes one night's stay, after which each night costs pounds 460. Consultants usually offer a 'package price' covering their services throughout ante-natal care and delivery.

Prices like this, and the fact that normal pregnancy is a standard exclusion under insurance policies, mean that a private delivery is not an option for most people. Alison, a senior executive with a City firm, decided against going private and managed by 'playing the system': making early appointments so she was less likely to be kept waiting; and arriving right at the end of a block-booked clinic appointment.

Jenny Younger's advice is to think about it carefully and 'decide in a mature way', accepting that you will have a high level of cost. In any case, most agree that medical care and facilities under the NHS are not the worry; the problem is that lack of general comfort and privacy, and under staffing, make life difficult at a time when one is most in need of comfort.

(Photograph omitted)

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