The investigation follows the OFT's decision to refer the level of consultants' fees to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
The charges levied by consultants and private hospitals are inextricably linked. Only consultants admit patients to private hospitals. The success or failure of a private hospital depends on the number of consultants who 'tie' themselves to it and act as a conduit admitting patients.
Patients frequently are not in a position to question a consultant's choice of hospital. Recently one patient suffered a heart attack and was admitted to a large NHS hospital in north London.
The consultant cardiologist on duty had seen the patient privately on a previous occasion. He decided the facilities at the NHS hospital were not appropriate and transferred him to a private hospital - the same hospital where the consultant had his consulting rooms.
The patient subsequently died. After a 14-day stay the hospital bill was of the order of pounds 40,000.
He was insured with Western Provident Association. Julian Stainton, the managing director of WPA, said: 'The patient's level of cover did not include this particular hospital. Unfortunately, given that the patient was unconscious on his initial admission, he had little opportunity to explain this.
'Substantial numbers of consultants have their consulting rooms within private hospitals and invariably tell patients that that is the only place they operate.
'Private hopitals compete for the services of these consultants by purchasing ever more expensive equipment and providing ever more luxurious facilities for the consultants. The capital costs of private hospitals have risen to the point where their charging levels, which are in turn passed on as insurance premiums, are severely damaging the public. It is crucial that the OFT looks at the hospitals as well as the doctors.'
Dr Sandy Macdonald Smith of Executive Health Care, which sets up and administers private medical schemes for companies, agreed that private hospitals must be investigated. 'Without doubt the hospitals should be looked at. They are up to lots of tricks to increase their income.'
Mr Stainton said: 'To my knowledge no private hospital provides a full tariff of charges prior to admission. There is no form of regulation in the financial operations of private hospitals nor is there any consumer protection. It has got to be changed.'Reuse content