NHS earns pounds 150m from private patients: Doctors earn average of pounds 45,000 a year in fees

NATIONAL Health Service income from private patients rose to a record pounds 150m last year, as more state-funded hospitals opened pay-bed wards and wings. The increase takes the stake held by the NHS in the commercial acute health market to 13 per cent, stiffening competition with private hospitals.

Fees paid to surgeons, anaesthetists and physicians for non-NHS work - currently under a Monopolies and Mergers Commission price-fixing investigation - rose to an estimated pounds 561m. The 12,000 consultants who carry out private practice earned an average of pounds 45,000 apiece on top of their NHS salaries last year, according to a review of private health trends published yesterday.

The number of people covered by private health insurance fell for the second year running, by 4 per cent to 6.25 million. But while the recession dampened demand for policies, individual and company spending on premiums rose by 14 per cent, lifting the total value of the acute market to pounds 1.8bn.

'Existing private hospital providers face a major threat from increasingly vigorous competition from the NHS,' William Laing, editor of the annual Laing & Buisson review, said. 'The health service is likely to go some way towards recapturing the 50 per cent share held in the early 1970s, to the detriment of private providers.'

The most significant trend in NHS managers' search for private payers has been the establishment of hospital pay-bed units solely for private patients. The Department of Health stopped collecting figures on the use of NHS pay-beds in the mid- 1980s, and only now monitors the number. 'There is cause for concern about how fair the competition is,' the review says. 'There is no published information that can tell us whether NHS pay-beds are being operated profitably, and whether public investment in private services is generating a surplus.'

Laing's Review of Private Healthcare 1993; Laing & Buisson, Lymehouse Studios, 38, Georgiana Street, London NW1 OEB; pounds 100.