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Traditionally, the route to success as a private consultant has been to maintain close links with GPs who act as the “gatekeeper” to private referrals. The referral route for private patients often follows a similar pattern as for NHS patient referrals. It’s one of the reasons why many consultants choose to remain involved in the NHS whilst operating as a private practitioner.

But with the growth of the empowered patient and the ease with which a patient can source and compare information on private consultants and private hospitals online, the pattern of referral and patient choice is changing.

The CMA investigation into the private healthcare market

Back in 2012, the Competition and Markets Authority (formerly the Competition Commission) started its investigation into the private healthcare market. It was the CMA’s view that various features of the private healthcare market impaired the ability of patients, GPs and PMI providers to choose between competing service providers, on the basis of superior quality of services to patients and better value for money. It has been a slow and tortuous process, but has brought about some change, certainly greater transparency and a drive to provide the information that patients need to make an “informed choice” when selecting a private healthcare provider.

The CMA undertook various activities to gain a better understanding of how the private healthcare market operates. Amongst these was an investment in research into how the referral process works for private patients. The research looked at the following:

  • How patients access private healthcare.
  • The interactions between patients and healthcare professionals.
  • The influence of private medical insurers
  • The information available to patients.

The researchers contacted over 1,000 patients who had accessed private healthcare through a private hospital or an NHS PPU. Around 80% were funded through their PMI; 20% were self-pay. It’s one of the few pieces of research that examines the influence of the GP, the insurer and the hospital on private patient choice.

What did the research tell us about the private patient journey?

Here are some of the findings. If you’re involved in marketing to private patients, take note.

  • 60% of patients who saw a consultant were referred by a GP. So…. 40% did not go through the traditional GP referral route.
  • 20% of private hospital patients who were referred by a GP to a consultant said that the GP suggested more than one named private consultant to them.
  • 55% of GPs said they typically suggest two or more private consultants to their patients.
  • 52% of private hospital patients considered the consultant to be more important than the hospital when choosing where/by whom to be treated.
  • 40% of private hospital patients who had been referred to a consultant either already knew or had a good idea of which consultant they wanted to see prior to being referred.
  • Clinical expertise and reputation of the consultant were the most common reasons for choosing a private consultant.

The research also highlighted some differences in the profile of PMI funded and self-pay patients:

  • The average age of the PMI funded patient was 54; for the self-pay patient – 61.
  • 27% of PMI patients rated their condition as ‘severe’; 45% of self-pay patients rated their condition as ‘severe’.
  • 45% of PMI patients were ‘affected’ in their ability to lead a full life; 70% of self pay patients were ‘affected’ in their ability to lead a full life;
  • Those who self-paid were much more likely to have seen a consultant without a referral from a  GP. Only 47% went to the consultant via a GP referral.
  • Consultant choice was much more important to self-pay private hospital patients than those who paid via PMI.

What conclusions can we draw?

If you’re a consultant aiming to attract new patients, or a private hospital aiming to boost its activity, there are some important lessons here.

For the private consultant, the traditional GP referral route is becoming less and less important. Many GPs are enabling patient choice by providing a shortlist from which the patient chooses.   Patients are making choices about which consultant they see; presumably, this is based on online research and word of mouth recommendation and their perception of the “clinical expertise and reputation” of the consultant. How they make this judgment is probably worthy of a separate blog!

For the private hospital, “capturing“ a consultant so that the hospital benefits from his or her patient flow obviously remains vital. But with the CMA driven introduction of new restrictions on the consultant/hospital relationship, this is going to become harder. In the self-pay market, it’s clear that direct to consumer marketing to influence choice of consultant and choice of hospital is going to require greater investment and better tuned marketing campaigns.

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About the author

Keith Pollard is CEO of Intuition Communication, an online publisher in the healthcare sector that operates market-leading web portals such as Private Healthcare UK, the Harley Street Guide, HarleyStreet.com and Surgery Door. Intuition is also active in the online medical travel sector through Treatment Abroad, International Medical Travel Journal and DoctorInternet, the Arabic medical tourism portal. View www.keithpollard.com for my full profile.

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