Bob Andrews, Chief Executive of Benenden Health, discusses the role private healthcare has to play during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
According to reports, more than one in six people in England could be waiting for NHS treatment this winter, with hospitals forced to run at 60 per cent capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, many individuals are facing significant delays in the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses, adding to the ongoing public health crisis.
Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the lives of everyone in the UK, I firmly believe there’s a role for affordable private healthcare in improving the nation’s health and reducing perhaps the greatest strain the NHS has ever felt.
There is a view that private healthcare is insidiously undermining the integrity of the principle of universal healthcare for all. It is frequently a football used in discussion topics such as Brexit.
This is one view, but perhaps a simplistic one. It tends to ignore the role that mutual societies like Benenden Health have played in the provision of healthcare since before the NHS was founded. This view also fails to recognise changing demographics and the havoc that the cyclical nature of Government investment can have on public healthcare provision.
Ethically sound private healthcare provision can play an extremely beneficial role in a mixed economy.
Private healthcare packages not only offer great support to families and businesses but also to our NHS. The provision of private healthcare should not be seen as direct competition with the NHS or an expensive luxury as it is often perceived. A privately-provided health package could significantly help people in a time of need, providing a safety blanket – rather than a competing service – for when the NHS is under strain.
To be most effective, the NHS and private healthcare should work harmoniously together to the benefit of the nation’s health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled some of this cooperation to be highlighted, with private hospitals including the Benenden Hospital in Kent, opening their beds up to the NHS and undertaking a number of procedures on behalf of local trusts to tackle wait times. But the reality is that collaboration already existed and will continue to do so. This is why private healthcare must be de-stigmatised, and the conversation around its role must continue once we come through the other side of the coronavirus crisis.
Employee wellbeing: a business critical issue
In the workplace, healthcare can be perceived as a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a must-have and it is often seen to only be for senior members of staff. This shouldn’t and needn’t be the case. A universal healthcare offering for all employees is a very achievable, cost-effective and valuable option for businesses.
The conversation around employee wellbeing is nothing particularly new, for all it has been highlighted further by the stresses and strains placed on workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, a recent Benenden Health report found that a third of employees would leave their job if their employer wasn’t adequately looking after their mental wellbeing and that more than a fifth have already one so.
This trend is only likely to continue with it being the youngest generations – rather than their older counterparts – placing most value on effective wellbeing support at work.
The presence of a suitable and universal healthcare plan within a wider benefits package is subsequently proving a growing factor in recruiting and retaining the best talent. Current circumstances are only serving to emphasise this further. However, they also provide an opportunity for firms to take stock and re-evaluate their proposition as an employer.
A failing on the side of employers to adequately provide healthcare support for workers has an obvious impact on their personal health. But relying on lengthy wait times, or failing to address issues such as poor mental wellbeing, can have an even larger effect on the health of a business through absence and poor productivity.
Many private health providers, like Benenden Health, run under a not for profit model. Services are provided for a small monthly fee enabling easy and prompt access to medical support and treatment at a time when, through no fault of its own, capacity within the NHS is under strain.
The private-public health partnership
Public and private health can, and should, work in partnership. For example we recently made a significant donation to the Royal Brompton Hospital to pioneer research into the cause and effects of COVID-19. The grant will fund a researcher to examine information, data and other findings that have emerged so far with the aim of understanding more about this virus. This will be valuable to hospitals all over the UK as they prepare for the challenges of a potential second COVID-19 wave, alongside winter flu.
If there’s one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has proven, it’s that collaboration like this is priceless. People have come together to help each other with great results and businesses have the opportunity to do the same.
Whilst the focus at present is understandably on the here and now, the future of healthcare will also be built on this bedrock of cooperation. By investing in the personal wellbeing of ourselves, our loved ones and our employees, together we can help take the strain off the NHS and improve the nation’s health.
Bob Andrews is Chief Executive of Benenden Health, a not-for-profit private health provider that offers affordable, high quality healthcare to its 800,000+ individual and corporate members. This includes round the clock care such as 24/7 GP and mental health helplines, plus speedy access to services such as physiotherapy and medical treatment.
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