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Private practice is unethical and doctors should give it up BMJ 5th May 2015

Posted on May 5, 2015 at 11:15 AM


Opposition from the medical profession to my BMJ article seems to take two forms; firstly (and most commonly) there are those who believe it is perfectly possible to behave ethically in private practice. They almost all accept that conflicts exist and can name doctors who have abused the system, but it does not happen to them. Many express either pity or scorn for me that I lacked the moral fibre (which they hold in spades) to resist the substantial financial incentives.

Secondly, there are a few who simply cannot understand my misgivings. Private practice is a business. And like any business, the name of the game is to make as much profit as possible. As long as the police and the GMC are not interested in your affairs, what’s the problem? Go ahead and make as much money as you can.

I do not hold strong views on healthcare models in other countries apart from the general comment that anyone who consults a doctor working on a fee for service basis faces a dilemma, whether the doctor’s main focus is on the patient’s health or their chequebook. This statement is often greeted with outrage but it seems self-evident to me. I accept that most patients across the globe face this dilemma.

Also I am not unduly concerned about doctors who devote all their time to private practice. My main point is that it is difficult to work in both the private and public sectors at the same time. There are two further reasons why I believe this to be unethical, but did not have space to mention in my article. Firstly, it divides the profession, splitting us into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Is it purely coincidental that the specialties that have the greatest recruitment problems are those where the opportunity for private work is very low or non-existent? And yet these disciplines (emergency medicine, geriatrics, acute medicine, palliative care etc.) are exactly those that desperately need more doctors to cope with the ever-increasing tide of emergency admissions to hospital and care for our aging population.

Secondly, it divides the medical profession from the allied professions (nurses, radiographers, ODA’s etc.). A consultant carrying out a private procedure in an NHS hospital will receive a substantial fee, whereas the team assisting him will be paid standard NHS rates, even if this procedure is done outside normal working hours. A bag of doughnuts doesn’t really address this imbalance.

My comment that private practice ‘…is largely a con’ has proved particularly inflammatory, I cannot see why. For sure, if you want to have your piles fixed in a facility with a private room where you can order a bottle of claret with your evening meal, you will not get this on the NHS. But if you really believe that private hospitals offer safe, quality care I would urge you to read the" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">CHPI report  and think again.

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