It is fashionable to be gloomy about the NHS, to highlight its failings and to warn of imminent catastrophe. A particular fear is that as the NHS's budget is squeezed, its trusts will be forced to rely increasingly on private sources of income to balance their books.
The Government's decision last year to lift the cap on what trusts could earn from private patients – which in most cases had been below 2 per cent – to 49 per cent fuelled anxiety.
The reality is very different from what many people imagine. Rather than private patients propping up the NHS, it is the NHS that is propping up the private sector. Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, published yesterday, show that 345,000 operations paid for by the NHS were carried out in private hospitals in 2011-12 – an 11 per cent rise on the previous year.
The private medical sector is in trouble. Spending by private patients has been flat since 2005 and fell 3 per cent overall in 2010 and 2011, according to the private health analyst Laing and Buisson. Like other sectors of the economy, it has been hit by the recession and has become increasingly reliant on income from the NHS, which has quadrupled since the mid-2000s.
NHS patients are offered the choice of treatment in a private hospital, and trusts have been sending increasing numbers there to hold their waiting lists below the 18-week maximum. What the NHS's doom-mongers – who fear that NHS patients will be squeezed out as trusts seek to boost their private work – need to answer is where they think these extra private patients are going to come from. With the exception of a handful of world-class institutions such as London's Royal Marsden cancer hospital, which draw patients from across the world, the potential is limited.
A key driver of private patient growth is poor NHS performance. When waiting lists grow, those who can afford to do so turn their back on the NHS and pay privately for their treatment. Yet today, NHS waiting lists are at a record low. We should celebrate this achievement – while we still can.