Why private healthcare firms are preparing for a ‘massive demand’

As Covid-19 continues to have a severe effect on planned surgery in the UK, dealing with the resulting backlog is a major concern for the NHS.

Bob Andrews, chief executive of Benenden Health. Picture Tony Johnson.

Recent data from NHS England showed that the number of patients awaiting treatment hit a record high of 4.46 million in November 2020, with the number of referrals well below 2019 levels. The same data suggested that roughly 2.3 million people were waiting for surgical care.

In the background, private healthcare providers are preparing for a dramatic increase in demand for their services as people look for alternative routes to care.

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Bob Andrews, chief executive of Benenden Health in York, is one of those poised for growth.

Benenden, the not-for-profit healthcare provider founded in 1905, provides its services to 815,000 members.

Some of these services include a 24/7 GP and mental health helplines, plus speedy access to services such as physiotherapy and medical treatment in its hospitals including Benenden Hospital in Kent.

“What we’re trying to do is understand where the demand is going to come back. It’s not that the demand isn’t there, but people have been reticent to have elective procedures because of fear of going to a hospital and catching Covid,” he said.

He added: “The pent up demand is just sitting there. As we get to the other side of lockdown, you’d expect that to really impact on private medical insurers and the NHS because the NHS just won’t be able to cope.

“You can’t fault the NHS for everything they’ve done but they’re just going to get overwhelmed with what is waiting to quietly come out of the woodwork.”

Mr Andrews describes healthcare providers like Benenden as the ‘affordable alternative’ to full private medical insurance.

Benenden was founded with the purpose of joining people together to help pay for medical care when they might need it. It remains its core purpose today.

The firm’s cheapest healthcare product is £11.90 a month - an increase of 40p from this year due to extra personal protective equipment and cleaning costs.

“For many people, the affordability of full private medical insurance, which is several hundred pounds a month, is just inconceivable, and that creates a huge challenge when you’ve got long NHS waiting lists,” he said.

“Having something like this means that you can get lots of benefits at a low price.”

The downside to the low cost is that it doesn’t cover everything. The notable exceptions are anything to do with the heart, head or cancer.

There has been criticism of routine elective care continuing in private hospitals, while the NHS faces ‘unthinkable’ pressures from coronavirus. But Mr Andrews believes it’s important for the two sides to work together on tackling the health crisis.

“It suggests that the private sector hasn’t been supporting what’s been going on but actually it’s been right at the heart in trying to look for ways to help the NHS,” he said.

During the first lockdown, Benenden turned its hospital in Kent into an NHS hospital. In the end it wasn’t needed but instead it lent staff to other hospitals as part of the nationwide effort to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed by Covid.

At the same time, Benenden had to continue to look after its own paying members and that’s where it stepped up its healthcare technology.

“The question from members was how do you take advantage of your insurance products when you can’t actually access a hospital?” Mr Andrews said.

“Like probably all other health insurers we started to look at the digital and remote opportunities available.

“Clearly there are things that can’t be diagnosed remotely and under those circumstances you’d be encouraged to go and see your GP face-to-face.

“But things like physio, which you might associate with being a hands on service, have evolved to a remote service, with the exercises demonstrated on a video call.”

He added: “The pandemic forces you to look at technologies that are available and other ways of working to enable people to access healthcare support but in a slightly different way.”

A key consideration when looking at the future of private healthcare post-pandemic is the concept of long Covid.

“Long Covid is different things to different people,” Mr Andrews said. “It can be mental or physical but we want to make sure that if our members are experiencing some kind of long Covid issue, that our products will enable them to get support for that.”

According to Mr Andrews, the private healthcare industry recognises that it will have a role to play in the post-pandemic phase.

“Given the huge waiting lists, we’re going to see a massive demand for private care because the NHS won’t be able to deal with the volume but we all need to work together so we can deliver for everybody,” he said.

He added: “We always had the belief that healthcare should be free at the point of delivery but the reality is that there is no way that healthcare can always be free at the point of delivery in the time scale you might want it to be.

“There have to be some alternatives.

“It’s not undermining or competing with the NHS, it’s saying that there have to be other routes to healthcare if people want to consider them.”

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James Mitchinson