Private hospitals ‘lack facilities to deal with emergencies’, study finds

The study found that between 2010 and 2014, 800 patients, including those referred by the NHS, died unexpectedly in private hospitals

Vivek Chaudhary
Monday 02 March 2015 01:06 GMT

NHS patients are putting their lives at risk by opting for operations in private hospitals which lack the facilities to deal with emergencies if things go wrong, senior doctors have warned.

More than a quarter of the 1.6 million operations conducted by private hospitals last year were carried out on NHS patients and GPs are increasingly being encouraged to refer more of them to the private sector, partly to ease the burden on NHS hospitals.

Doctors are also warning that the guidelines governing private hospitals, particularly concerning deaths and other serious cases, are not as stringent as they are in the NHS.

The Centre for Health and the Public Interest, a leading medical think-tank, found that between 2010 and 2014, 800 patients, including those referred by the NHS, died unexpectedly in private hospitals. It also documented several cases where mistakes had been made by private hospitals but not detected until up to a year later. In one incident, surgeons had replaced the wrong knee joint on three separate patients.

Colin Leys, author of the report, told the BBC’s London Inside Out programme, due to be broadcast tonight: “In the NHS, you have a national reporting and learning system that is independently operated, to which all hospitals must report all serious incidents and if they see a pattern building up they intervene and that doesn’t happen for private hospitals.

“In any given year, about 200 patients die unexpectedly in private hospital … we don’t know who they are, why it happened we just know that it happens. It’s surprising because private hospitals on the whole don’t take any patient that is high risk.”

A survey carried out by, the largest professional online network for doctors in the UK, reveals that 53 per cent of consultants believe the management of emergencies in private care is less safe than the NHS. It also found that 72 per cent of private hospitals do not have a Critical Care Unit which is permanently staffed by at least one doctor around the clock, seven days a week.

Another survey by the Centre for Health and the Public Interest found that in a year, there are 6,000 transfers from private hospitals in England to NHS hospitals, of which 2,500 are emergencies.

Professor Peter Taylor, a vascular surgeon who retired last year after working for 25 years in the NHS and private sector, told the programme: “If something unusual happens [in private sector operations] then it can have very serious consequences. The difficulty comes when there are emergency cases which occur particularly out of hours when you don’t have the fallback that you have in the NHS.”

Staffing is another area where private hospitals were found to be lacking. Only 45 per cent of private hospitals were found to have an emergency anaesthetist on call, without whom operations cannot take place.

Inside Out London is broadcast tonight on BBC1 at 7.30pm.

Case study: ‘The routine aftercare didn’t happen’

When 73-year-old Allan Hawksworth went to see his GP about a hip replacement operation, he was told that he would be better off having it done privately, with the NHS picking up the cost.

Mr Hawksworth was admitted to a private hospital, which cannot be named for legal reasons, where he successfully underwent surgery. During his stay in hospital, the pensioner, from Hope Valley, Derbyshire, should have been given a drug to prevent blood clots but never received it.

A week after the operation, Mr Hawksworth developed deep vein thrombosis and collapsed and died at home.

Mr Hawkswroth’s daughter, Suzanne, told BBC’s ‘London Inside Out’: “In Dad’s case it was uncomplicated surgery. Everything went fine but the routine aftercare didn’t happen. Nobody questioned why one patient on that ward was not receiving the injections all the others were receiving. What was very evident from the inquest was that the different professionals involved didn’t seem to have very clear understanding of what their roles were within that private hospital.”

The family are currently involved in a legal dispute with the hospital. Their lawyer claims that adequate guidelines are not in place within the private sector, putting patients at risk.

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