A group of experts has been challenged to help the NHS “maximise” the way it uses private hospitals to help reduce the record number of patients waiting for care.
Academics and experts from the NHS and independent sector are to meet at Downing Street on Wednesday to look at how to reduce the waiting list for pre-planned care.
The so-called Elective Recovery Taskforce will help the NHS deliver on the target of eliminating all waits over 18 months by April next year and waits of longer than a year by March 2025, officials said.
The number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment has risen to a new record high.
A total of 7.1 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of September, the highest number since records began in August 2007.
The first Taskforce meeting, chaired by health minister Will Quince, will see the group “focus on how the NHS can utilise existing capacity in independent sector to cut the backlog”.
They will make a series of recommendations to government early next year on “how the NHS can better commission the independent sector”, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
This will include recommendations on better communication between the sectors and more information on availability in private hospitals.
The Department said that around 6% of NHS care delivered in October was provided by private hospitals – some 450,000 appointments.
“The NHS is facing an unprecedented challenge to tackle Covid backlogs,” said Health Secretary Steve Barclay.
“Hardworking staff have made strong progress but I want to turbocharge our current plans to bust the backlog and help patients get the treatment they need.
“The taskforce will look at sensible steps to utilise all existing capacity to slash waiting lists while ensuring the NHS always remains free at the point of use.”
Minister for Health Will Quince added: “We are relentlessly focussed on tackling waiting lists and busting the Covid backlogs and this new taskforce will bring together experts from across the healthcare system.
“Doing so will ensure we’re using all the capacity available to us to improve care across the NHS and independent sector, and give patients more autonomy over when and where they are treated.”
Sir James Mackey, national director for elective recovery at NHS England, said: “NHS staff are working incredibly hard to tackle the Covid backlog at a time of immense pressure on the health service with significant progress already made – virtually eliminating two year waits for care – and it’s vital that we continue to support staff to deliver for patients.
“By maximising opportunities to deliver even more life-saving checks and tests, building on the successes of increasing use of the independent sector since the pandemic, we can speed up diagnoses and continue to bring down waiting lists for routine care.”
David Hare, chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, added: “For decades independent sector capacity has been used by the NHS to improve patients’ access to care free at the point of use, and giving patients’ a legal right to choose an independent sector provider for their treatment was a big factor in getting NHS waiting times down in the 2000s.
“The taskforce is a great opportunity to learn lessons from that period and in particular to make good on patients’ legal right to choose the best provider for them, whether public or independent sector, and to ensure that the capacity and capability which is available in the independent sector is being fully utilised for the benefit of NHS patients.”