Demand for private healthcare is growing in the UK even as a sharp rise in the cost of living hits customers’ pockets and patients despair over record NHS waiting lists, figures show.
Self-pay enrollments — where people choose to fund their own health care instead of using private health insurance — rose by 39 percent across the UK in the two years to the end of 2021, according to the independent Private Health Information Network, an organization that tracks treatment data.
Demand increased by 90 percent in Wales and 84 percent in Scotland. In England, the increase in self-funded treatments was greatest in the East Midlands, at 75 per cent, compared with 20 per cent in London, where demand was already highest nationally.
The sharp increase in the number of people opting for self-pay procedures reflects growing public frustration with the health service where, according to NHS England, waiting lists are “significantly longer” than in the pre-Covid era.
A record 6.73 million people were waiting for elective consultant-led care within the NHS in England, according to figures from June, with 2.54 million in the queue for more than 18 weeks. NHS England said the median wait for treatment was 13.3 weeks.
David Hare, chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, identified “a very strong correlation between growth NHS waiting lists and those patients who decide to self-pay”.
About half of Britons would consider private treatment, the organization’s poll showed. In almost half of cases this was because people had difficulty accessing NHS care.
Spire Healthcare, which as the only private healthcare group listed on the London Stock Exchange is seen as a good barometer for the £1.1bn self-pay market, said self-funded care made up 29 per cent of its business.
The group added that 58 per cent of its target patients were more likely to consider using a private hospital because of growing NHS waiting lists.
“Attitudes are changing,” said Spire CEO Justin Ash. Far from a short-lived boom, he believes the surge in interest in self-pay marks a “fundamental shift,” describing demand for care as “strong [and] unprecedented”.
The preference for private health care comes from a wider distribution of income than in the past, Hare noted. Even among households earning less than £40,000 a year, the number willing to fund their own procedures rose by 54 per cent, or 1.7 million people, compared to two years earlier, according to Spire’s analysis.
Cataract procedures cost around £2,000 on average, while an MRI is around £350, Hare noted. “The public is often surprised at how affordable private health care can be,” he said. “People prioritize their health over most other things.”
Analysts agree that a fundamental change is taking place. “The underlying pay demographics are changing,” said Liz Heath, self-pay specialist at consultancy LaingBuisson, adding that financial services groups have made it easier for patients to access products that drive up the cost of treatment.
Many people who didn’t have holidays during the pandemic had more money available, she pointed out.
In general, the most popular procedure that people pay for out of pocket is cataract surgery, according to the PHIN. The age group that pays the most for health treatments – including cataracts and joint replacements – is the over 55s.