Private health firms are being asked to take on patients for NHS operations when the “going gets rough” in busy accident and emergency departments, a senior NHS official has said.
NHS medical director for England, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, told MPs extra cash had been put into A&E to ease it through winter but discussions were ongoing to get help from private companies.
His comments come as it was announced that routine planned surgery across north Wales has been postponed this week due to “increased pressure” on A&E.
Wrexham Maelor hospital, Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor and Glan Clwyd in Bodelwyddan are affected, according to Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.
It follows cancellations last month of planned surgery at Wythenshawe Hospital in Greater Manchester.
All non-urgent operations and appointments were also cancelled in late December at two hospitals in Worcestershire due to increased pressure on their A&E units.
The trust running Worcestershire Royal Hospital and the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch said it was experiencing “an unexpected level of demand”, and cancelled staff leave.
Across the whole of England, between 140 and 350 planned operations have been cancelled every day since 2 January.
Sir Bruce Keogh
Professor Keogh told the Commons health committee: “We’ve started to look at how the private sector might be engaged in the event of a surge through hospitals, coming through A&E.
“One of the issues under consideration is when the going gets rough in winter, often one of the impacts is on elective care so waiting lists start to drift out, so could elective care be shifted more into the private sector?
“Barbara Hakin (NHS England’s deputy chief executive) has had meetings not only with the private sector but with the voluntary sector to see what they could do to help.”
He said the NHS was “better prepared” this winter “than any winter that I’ve been involved in before but I think we’d be foolish to be complacent because there are always things that crop up like outbreaks of flu or norovirus”.
In a statement, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board said some procedures were still being carried out.
It said: “Over the last few days there has been a sustained increase in demand for emergency health care across North Wales. This has led to significant pressures on the emergency departments at Ysbyty Gwynedd, Glan Clwyd and Wrexham Maelor hospitals.
“Many of the patients we have been admitting to hospital have complex multiple health problems and have been elderly and frail. This means they are having to stay in hospital for longer periods. This has led to increased pressure on beds, and the risk of delays for other patients needing emergency care.
“As part of our normal escalation procedures for dealing with such pressures, the Health Board has therefore decided to reduce routine planned surgery at the three hospitals for this week.
“Urgent operations, such as those for patients with cancer, will still go ahead as will eye surgery and orthopaedic surgery at Abergele Hospital and day case procedures. This situation is being reviewed on a daily basis.”
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