BBCs news this week was full of the story of 'private company' Circle Healthcare Ltd taking over NHS services. It's CEO Ali Parsa was challenged by Justin Webb on why it requires an outside organisation to make changes which could surey just be introduced by NHS without the need for a new provider.
Webb's question actually cuts to the heart of the matter here. The NHS can't do this. There is abundant evidence to show that it cannot deliver simple economies and is endemically incapable of dealing with lower growth in resource. The NHS could not, for years, balance the books at Hinchinbrooke. This is why, in desperation, it was tendered out. Without this, it is pretty clear that Hinchinbrooke was going to be downscaled or worse.
I say this because I have a bit of an interest. Hinchinbrooke isn't my local hospital but I know it quite well. It serves a series of small towns between Peterborough and Cambridge, both of which are important regional hospitals. It fits into that category of 'district general hospital (DGH)', which most of us rely upon.
The challenge is that the 'business model' for DGHs is under pressure from the double-whammy of regional specialist centres and the need for more primary, community and preventative services. Put simply, if I get cancer, I go to my regional centre (Addenbrookes). For most other things I go to my new-fangled GP surgery where they even perform minor ops. My local DGH gets caught in the pincer.
So, politics aside, this is a difficult business to be in. Which is why poor providers like Hinchinbrooke NHS Trust get found out very quickly. Hence, if we want DGHs to exist, we need for new providers with fresh approaches. The reason I am glad that Circle won it was that the delivery side of the business is half employee owned. The BBC, in its usual binary way, refused to focus on this, instead stressing the fact that it is 50% privately owned and backed by hedge funds.
And how else, I ask, is Circle to find the necessary funding to get Hinchinbrooke off its arse and working properly I wonder? The government is bust, in case nobody noticed. Circle have been able to bring new money to table. In addition, through its co-ownership model it is also bringing employees own energy to the equation, as co-owners of the company. Study after study attests to the benefits even of part-ownership like this.
Surely it's a time to set aside our ancient anxieties about risks and try new providers like Circle? Remember, there is nothing 'safe' in a failing NHS hospital which is losing money, probably causing more harm than it should and on the brink of closure. And there are savings to make, there always are. People who don't deal much with the NHS don't realise how god-awful much of the management practice is, how 1970s it all is internally and just how much scope there is for savings.
I have seen it all first hand and much of it is quite repellent: brutal, authoritarian, super-bureaucratic and self-interested. If Circle can raise standards, balance the books and raise productivity then their staff and investors are welcome to a profit.