GPs 'increasingly likely' to ask patients if they have PMI

But more than a third still reluctant to direct individuals to private sector

GPs are becoming increasingly likely to ask patients whether they have private medical insurance (PMI), according to the results of a survey.

A poll of more than 1,000 GPs across the UK by Spire Healthcare, the private hospital group, found that 54% of doctors report feeling comfortable when directing patients to private treatment, irrespective of whether they have PMI.

However, 36% say they still feel uncomfortable about doing this.

The survey also found that 58% of doctors say they are asking more patients if they have PMI than they were six months ago.

When respondents were asked the same question a year ago, that proportion was just 24%.

Dr Jean-Jacques de Gorter, clinical services director for Spire Healthcare, said that by encouraging patients to use their PMI, GPs can save the NHS a significant amount of money and help make the most of their NHS budgets.

He said: “It’s good to see more and more GPs asking their patients about private treatment. The private sector has an important role to play working alongside our excellent national healthcare system in the UK.”

Charlie MacEwan, corporate communications director at WPA, the insurer, said it is not surprising to hear more doctors are asking patients about medical insurance.

He said commissioning and the NHS Choose and Book system – an electronic referral service which gives patients a choice of place, date and time for their first outpatient appointment in a hospital or clinic – have put private healthcare on GPs’ radars.

MacEwan said: “The NHS is undergoing massive change and you only need to see the headlines to understand how challenged it is, so patients are reviewing their options and raising the subject with their GPs.”

He added that it was particularly noteworthy to see that 36% of GPs feel uncomfortable about directing patients to private treatment.

He said: “They need to understand that private healthcare supplements and complements the great work of the NHS rather than competing with it.”

The findings come after the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) announced its decision in April to refer the private healthcare market to the Competition Commission for further investigation, because in its view the market “could work better” for patients.

The OFT said at the time that there are “reasonable grounds” for suspecting that there are features of the market that prevent, restrict or distort competition.

It said there is a lack of easily comparable information available to patients and their GPs on the quality and costs of private healthcare services, meaning that competition between private healthcare providers and between consultants is "not as effective as it could be".

In the months leading up to the decision, the private healthcare market had generated heated debate between hospitals, medical insurers and consultants and doctors.

In December 2011, Bupa announced it would be de-listing a number of BMI Healthcare hospitals in a row over pricing.

The Federation of Independent Practitioner Organisations has since accused Bupa of removing choice from patients through its cost containment strategies, arguing in a letter published in the Financial Times that the strategy directs patients to a shortlist of specialists, rather than allowing them to be treated by one recommended by their GP.

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