The patient-as-consumer and the rise in demand for private healthcare

A recent report – published by GK Strategy – found that there is a rising demand for private healthcare and that this is being driven by the consumer preferences of patients. What is it they seek? Simple ease of access, convenience and more choice in treatments. Marie Cahalane Spoke to Louise Allen, MD of political due diligence at GK Strategy, to find out more about the report and what it means for general practice

There is increasing demand for private healthcare services in the UK a report published by GK Strategy – a Westminster-based political risk and reputation consultancy – has revealed. The cause? ‘Consumer’ preferences – austerity, for example, only plays a minor part in this shift.


The report combines GK strategy’s digital analytics with their political and policy expertise and aims to understand the ‘consumer’ and just how their behaviour is changing. “While the NHS continues to do a fantastic job delivering care – despite the pressures that it’s facing – what we are seeing is that patients are beginning to mirror what consumers have done in other consumer markets,” Louise Allen, MD of political due diligence at GK Strategy, explains.

The report indicates that patients are becoming more like consumers in their preferences – attaching value to accessibility, convenience and choice. This, Louise adds, actually reflects something that has been happening in the healthcare system for some time. “The NHS itself has really been driven by a choice or patient-led agenda, so it’s not surprising to see that trend coming through,” she explains.

Further, according to the research, this consumer-driven trend and increased demand for private healthcare is something that will continue – particularly for certain specialities which are picked up on in the report. And, as these trends continue, there is an increasing likelihood of mixing NHS and private services for patients during the same course of treatment.

Speciality care

According to the report, patients are seeking out private services for cancer treatment, IVF treatment and hip and knee operations at a growing rate. In fact, the research – conducted primarily using digital analytical data, using Google searches as a proxy for demand – revealed that demand for private healthcare has nearly doubled since 2013 – growing by 24% in 2016-2017 alone.

“We looked at a number of key areas – IVF, hip and knee and cancer oncology – and the trend showed that the demand for private healthcare is been driven by consumer preference; we would expect that trend to continue over the coming years,” Louise says.

The report highlights the following trends in each of these three areas:

IVF patients

  • 39% of patients discussing choosing private provision online refer to the improved availability of treatment in the private-pay market.
  • This is despite just six CCGs across the whole of the UK being unable to offer an IVF service of any
  • However, rationing and restrictions are increasing, meaning private healthcare is becoming more of an attractive option.

Hip and knee replacements

  • The number of NHS procedures has remained relatively stable over the last few years, around the 71,000 mark.
  • One key issue stated by patients considering going private was the lack of availability of NHS treatment due to high demand for services, with 40% of patients going private mentioning that it played a role in their decision making.
  • 42% focused on the ease of access and convenience that the private-pay market provided.

Cancer Patients

  • 32% of private-pay patients choose to do so due to availability of different drugs/treatments.
  • Google searches for private cancer treatment have increased by 63% since 2013, from 197,000 to 321,400.
  • This despite increases in NHS funding for cancer which has benefited from the seven per cent growth rate in budgets for specialised clinical commissioning and waiting times for both referral and treatment remaining stable.

Wider reflections

“What the report absolutely demonstrates is that the NHS does a fantastic job; it’s just more about the evolving consumer and what they are looking for in their healthcare preferences which is impacting, or changing, demand,” Louise notes.

While the report considers these three areas in particular, when asked whether this trend is reflected across all areas of healthcare, Louise points out that healthcare is really very personal and that people want personalised care; there’s already an element of private care within the NHS so it’s something that is well-established and is something that is likely to continue. “Our working assumption would be that, over all areas, there is a shift in demand towards private healthcare that is being driven by consumer preference in relation to choice, convenience and access,” she says.

Taking action

“It’s about looking forward and gauging what a future healthcare ‘consumer’ will look like and it’s about the ability of general practices, primary care, hospitals, businesses and the like to respond to that changing consumer and patient,” Louise observes. This is something that everyone involved in the delivery of healthcare should be considering.”

Knowing your current patients is always important, but knowing – and understanding – future patients and their demands is a sure way of delivering efficient healthcare that meets demand. “It’s about the healthcare system, as a whole, adapting to the changing consumer/patient, which is already a process in motion,” Louise adds.

Stay tuned for further research on private GP appointments

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