NHS bosses have reduced the number of patients being sent for treatment in private hospitals, but the practice will still leave the health service with an annual bill on course to hit almost £20 million.


More than 7,500 patients had been diverted into the private sector as NHS hospitals struggled to hit waiting times targets as the 2014/2015 financial year neared an end, according to figures obtained by The Herald.

It comes despite former health secretary Alex Neil ordering a clampdown on private sector spending in January last year. He then that although it was occasionally necessary to use profit-making hospitals, it should take place in "exceptional circumstances" and "should not be the norm". The claim was repeated by his successor, Shona Robison.

However, while their use has fallen overall and Ms Robison said less than one per cent of frontline spending went on private sector treatment, some health boards have continued to routinely rely on the practice.

The SNP faced accusations that it remained "utterly dependant" on the private sector, while the British Medical Association said legal treatment time targets the Government had introduced meant hospital bosses had little choice but to send patients to external providers.

Between April 2014 and the end of January, NHS Lothian had paid out almost £8 million to private hospitals for the treatment of more than 4,500 patients, accounting for around half of the national total.

NHS Grampian was left with a bill of almost £3 million in the same period, after sending almost 1,000 patients to private hospitals.

Jackson Carlaw, health spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: "This shows, despite the SNP's bluster on private health care, it continues to be utterly dependent on it."

He added: "We think the independent health sector is valuable, and often comes to the aid of an overstretched NHS when it most needs it.

"It's time the Scottish Government, and the Labour Party for that matter, dropped its scaremongering rhetoric on the NHS and admitted the small but effective role it can have in helping treat NHS patients."

The figures provided in total show that in 2014-15, at least 7,800 patients were sent into the private sector. Most health boards gave figures up to the end of December or January, meaning the final total will be higher. The cost was at least £16.8 million.

In the whole of 2013-14, health boards spent around £26.5 million on sending more than 11,000 patients to private hospitals.

Dr Peter Bennie, chair of the BMA in Scotland, said that the Scottish Government's treatment time guarantee, which offers patients the legal right to treatment within 12 weeks, meant that hospital bosses often had no choice but to look to the private sector.

He said: "The reality of the matter is that NHS Boards simply don't have the capacity to meet the demand for services. NHS managers are in an unenviable position of having to choose between spending money to send patients for treatment in private hospitals or breach the government's legally binding treatment time guarantee."

"It is likely that pressure is going to grow in the NHS as budgets are squeezed even further and it will be ever more important to ensure that services are focused on giving priority to those patients who have the greatest clinical need rather than diverting resources to achieve the politically motivated waiting time guarantee."

However, health secretary Shona Robison said that the NHS had reduced reliance on the private sector at a time that demand was at record levels. Last year, over one million procedures were carried out, an increase of almost 20 per cent since the SNP came to power in 2007.

She added: "As part of our plans to meet this increased demand, we have provided extra investment to increase capacity at the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, which is just one way we are enabling more people to be treated more quickly by the NHS.

"Audit Scotland's most recent assessment showed that NHS spending in the independent sector has actually fallen in the last year - and represents only 0.8 per cent of NHS Scotland's frontline spending. That stands in contrast to the NHS in England where private health spending has increased year on year. Only in exceptional circumstances will patients be treated in the independent sector."