Clinic under fire for pounds 1,000 skin therapy

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Patients at a private Harley Street clinic were charged nearly pounds 1,000 for a course of skin treatment they didn't need, including creams they could have purchased from a high-street chemist for the price of a National Health Service prescription or less, it is claimed today.

The Independent has previously highlighted concerns about the West One Clinic in central London, after it emerged that one patient suffering from an incurable and disfiguring skin condition had been charged pounds 950 for treatment which included a small pot of cream. Subsequent analysis of the cream revealed it had little or no therapeutic value.

Following this report, Watchdog, the BBC1 television consumer programme, sent two researchers masquerading as patients, with hidden cameras, to the clinic. The skin of both women had been declared normal and healthy by Dr Ian White, a dermatologist at St Thomas's Hospital in south London.

However, when one of the researchers, Steph Harvie, 29, was seen by a consultant at West One she was told that her condition was "urgent" and that she would need 60 treatments over three months at a cost of pounds 960. The consultant told her: "Because it is so urgent we need to get started and get it resolved. The important thing is to stop the deterioration."

Another researcher, Taira Rafiq, 27, was told by a West One consultant that she needed treatment for acne, also at a cost of pounds 960. Dr White tells Watchdog, which is to be broadcast tonight, that neither skin treatment was necessary.

The creams prescribed by the consultants at West One were then sent for analysis to an independent laboratory. One was a water-based exfoliative cream widely available, according to the Voelecker Laboratory in west London, at a cost of pounds 3 for 500g. The other was a water and alcohol astringent substance with a gelling agent mixed in, which can be bought from high- street chemists for pounds 3.09.

Watchdog says it has received several complaints about the clinic from patients. One woman was charged pounds 2,835 for a nine-month acne course which, she says, didn't work. A man who had facial scarring paid pounds 950 for a three- month course of treatment which he says did not improve his condition.

A spokeswoman for the West One Clinic declined to comment on the programme or on the specific complaints levelled at the clinic. "All I can say to you is that we are disgusted with the programme and we are going to sue," she said last night.

Two skin charities, the Vitiligo Society and the National Eczema Society, say they are "extremely concerned" about private clinics in London and in other major cities which offer free consultations but charge large sums for treatment and drugs.

Michael Wadsworth, the chief executive of the Vitiligo Society, took creams which had been prescribed by West One to some members of the society and sent them to be analysed by Chris Barrett, the chief pharmacist at the Royal Hospitals' NHS Trust in south-west London. Vitiligo is a condition in which patches of skin lose their colour. The depigmented areas are most noticeable in dark-skinned people.

One 20-year-old sufferer spent his savings on a course of treatment which included a 50g pot of cream which was found to contain tiny amounts of a steroid drug in white soft paraffin.

White paraffin, a non-therapeutic carrier agent, costs around pounds 1 for a 225g jar. A tube of the steroid cream, available on prescription only, costs the NHS about pounds 1.50, and a patient the standard prescription charge.