Insurer buys into NHS cancer centre

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The Independent Online
A health insurance company has invested in an NHS cancer treatment centre in an open admission that it needs the health service to provide the best possible care for private patients.

The new alliance between PPP Healthcare and the Royal Free NHS Trust in north London could be the precursor of similar deals with other trusts, according to Dr Harry McNeilly, medical director of PPP. Similar deals could also be established for some other highly specialised areas such as neurosurgery and neuroscience.

PPP, Britain's second biggest health insurer, has contributed pounds 100,000, or around a third of the pounds 350,000 cost of expanding the Royal Free's Moore cancer ward by 20 per cent to 24 beds, more than doubling its day care facilities and refurbishing eight intensive treatment rooms.

The facilities will be available to both NHS and private patients, with the Royal Free's private patient income from cancer treatment possibly doubling to pounds 1.5m a year or more as PPP encourages its patients to use the specialist facilities.

The move follows the Calman report on cancer services which concluded that the best treatment is provided by having limited numbers of highly specialised centres linked to cancer units in ordinary general hospitals which deal with the more common tumours - a so-called "hub and spoke" arrangement into which NHS units are being reorganised.

Private hospital units lack experience of treating rarer cancers and the comprehensive range of services from surgery to chemotherapy, radiotherapy and psychology which a specialist centre such as the Royal Free can provide, Dr McNeilly said.

"To have a high quality centre, you have to have all these specialists together and you need a substantial population which will throw up sufficient of the rarer tumours to ensure the specialists acquire the skills to provide the best treatment," he added.

"We firmly believe that the NHS at the moment is the only place that can provide that level of expertise, and that is why we are looking to the NHS to provide these services for our subscribers."

The "preferred provider" status means PPP will encourage subscribers who need such specialist care to use the Royal Free, obtaining competitive charges in return for more-or-less guaranteed volume. But PPP stressed the deal was less about price than about quality - ensuring that private patients receive equally good care to NHS patients as the "hub and spoke" reorganisation is phased in.

Richard Begent, Professor of Oncology at the Royal Free, insisted that private patients would not receive preferential treatment, and PPP's contribution was allowing an earlier and more extensive refurbishment of Moore ward. "There is no waiting list for treatment at the Royal Free, so there is no queue to jump," he said.