The government is to hand £1 billion of NHS money to private companies to provide scans and medical tests to the health service. Health secretary John Reid announced the privatisation of diagnostic tests, including the MRI scans that are important in diagnosing serious conditions, as part of measures to reduce NHS waiting lists last week.
But an earlier £80 million contract with private firm Alliance Medical to carry out MRI scans has already run into trouble. Ministers signed a deal with Alliance Medical in June last year to run 12 mobile scanning units at hospitals across England.
The five top NHS officials implementing the scheme have written to the Department of Health warning of serious failings, the Yorkshire Post revealed last December. The letter describes a “parlous” situation, with long delays in getting test results and concerns over the quality of scans. It said the officials were “both surprised and troubled” not to have been involved in a Department of Health examination of “the failings of this contract”.
Problems include the results of scans being delayed for up to six weeks and scans being misinterpreted.
Already some hospitals have pulled out of the project and brought their MRI scanning back in-house, including Leeds Teaching Hospitals trust and Lewisham University Hospital trust in south London.
Alliance Medical was set up by Robert Waley-Cohen, who until last June was one of the directors of the Countryside Alliance. Its chairman is former Tory foreign minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
Bridgepoint Capital, an investment firm with a large stake in Alliance Medical, paid former health secretary Alan Milburn up to £30,000 as a member of its advisory committee between March and September last year, during his brief stint on the backbenches.
Alliance Medical made over £5 million profit last year.
Both the doctors’ British Medical Association and the Society of Radiographers union have warned that NHS scanning equipment has been left standing idle while patients are diverted to private units.
Warren Town, deputy general secretary of the Society of Radiographers, said what the NHS needed was investment in staff so that NHS MRI scanners could be used to the full. He said, “There are huge problems with recruitment and retention of staff in the NHS and we wish the health secretary would put money into that instead of handing it to the private sector.”