'I'm buying back my life': Desperate NHS patients forced to seek private healthcare

ITV News health and science editor Emily Morgan spoke to patients turning to private healthcare after struggling in vain to get NHS treatment

I’ve worked in health news for nearly six years, I reported on the pandemic and have seen the NHS lurch from one crisis to the next.

We all knew the post-Covid era would be difficult, waiting lists were spiralling and capacity was shrinking.

But did we expect it to be this bad? To see large numbers of people turn their backs on the institution they love? I, for one, didn’t. But that is what is happening.

For weeks the Tonight team and I have been talking to and meeting patients so desperate and so ill, they’ve decided to go private.

For every single person we met, going private wasn’t an easy decision.

It is hugely expensive, it feels wrong when the NHS has been there for us since birth and it makes many feel guilty they are effectively jumping the queue.

But spare a thought for Candy Duncan, a Welsh nurse, who was forced to stop working because her employers felt her disability was putting patients at risk.  

Her disability was a hip problem that prevented her from standing or walking for any distance.

Candy was told the wait for a hip replacement would be two and a half years.

She told us: "I’m financially at my lowest point, I’m physically at my lowest point. I’m emotionally at my lowest point - I don’t think I’ve gone this low".

'Being a health worker myself, I never thought I’d be looking elsewhere. I’m buying back my life'

Candy Duncan sought treatment in Lithuania due to long waits for treatment in the UK

Candy’s choice was stark. Wait two years, along with more than 40,000 others, or pay £13,000 for the operation to be done privately. For her and her family it didn’t feel like a choice. Going private was the only option.

The problem was, there was a four month wait for private treatment in Wales too, so she found a cheaper option, in Lithuania.

Candy was honest about her decision.

"Being a health worker myself," she said, "I never thought I’d be looking elsewhere. I’m buying back my life".

And buy back her life she did, with the help of her family, for £7,000. She flew to Kaunas in Lithuania and attended a clinic where 70% of their patients are from… Britain. 

I think it’s important to note here that Candy is not well off. She hasn’t come from a family, used to going private. She’s worked all her life, paid taxes, worked for the NHS and never thought she’d be in this position.

But she’s not alone.

Thousands of people, from all walks of life are deciding the NHS simply isn’t working for them. Private hospitals have witnessed an 81% increase in revenue from self paying patients.

Credit: ITV Tonight

Most recent data shows 66,000 people paid for their own private healthcare in hospital.

The growth has stalled recently, probably due to the cost of living, but the total still remains well above the pre-pandemic average.

If you’ve been forced to stop work, surely it’s cheaper in the long run to pay for care and get back to work than languish on a waiting list?

Sadly though, there are those who don’t have time to wait. Those with cancer. Such a brutal disease, the longer it’s left to grow, the harder it is to treat. Professor Pat Price from Imperial College knows all about that.

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She told us international data shows that for every four week delay in diagnosis and treatment there can be on average a 10% increase in the death rate.

This matters because the NHS has a target to treat patients with cancer within 62 days of first presenting to a doctor.

Most recent data reveals 46% waited longer and the target hasn’t been met for seven years. I asked Professor Price whether it would mean more people dying.

"Absolutely," she said, "tens of thousands of people are going to die".

It’s perhaps something Maria Christoforou doesn’t want to hear.

'My oncologist has said that if I had waited for the GP to have these emergency tests, I wouldn't be here to tell my story'

Mother-of-two Maria Christoforou, who has been diagnosed with stage four cancer, saw a consultant privately after being told she would have to wait three weeks for emergency blood tests

She spent weeks battling to see her GP, only getting telephone appointments and being prescribed numerous courses of antibiotics.

Her coughing and sickness got so bad she finally saw the GP face-to-face.

She was told emergency bloods would take three weeks, something Maria decided she couldn’t wait for.

She asked her GP to refer her privately, to her surprise the doctor handed her a directory and said "pick someone".

Maria told me she literally picked, at random, a private consultant. He saw her a few days later. Maria’s story beyond this point is both horrific and joyous.

The consultant sent her straight for blood tests and the moment he got the results he phoned her and told her to get in a taxi and get to the hospital.

She was diagnosed with stage four cancer. She was put on treatment immediately and was at last being cared for. 

Maria was told to go straight to hospital after the consultant reviewed her blood tests Credit: ITV Tonight

Maria will never know what sort of impact the delays at the GP had on her, but her oncologist did tell her had she waited three weeks for her blood tests on the NHS, she wouldn’t be here today.

She is, and she has chemotherapy every three weeks, thanks to family health insurance her father took out years ago.

Without that, there is no way Maria could have afforded her treatment or indeed the ongoing treatment she will have to have for the foreseeable future. 

Deterioration is perhaps the cruellest part of waiting on a hospital list.

The Royal College of Surgeons told us it is pretty much inevitable. It explains why nearly half a million of us took out medical insurance in the last year.

It also explains why thousands of patients have posted videos on GoFundMe to raise their own funds to pay for care.

'The pain is so intense that I would have preferred to die'

Severe gallbladder pain and NHS backlogs halted Christina Johnston's opera-singing career and income, forcing her to raise £7,000 on GoFundMe for an emergency operation in the UK

Business for private healthcare is booming because the NHS is simply not working as it should right now.

No one doubts the challenges the NHS faces.

The waiting list is at 7.2 million and record funds have gone in to help bring it down.

Two year waits are down to around a thousand in England, 91 surgical hubs have been ringfenced to speed up operations and 94 new diagnostic centres have helped check 2.8 million people for cancer.

Things are being done and work is at an all time high to tackle the problem. 

But right now that problem remains.

It will take until the middle of 2024 to see the list fall substantially so perhaps this is going to get worse before it gets significantly better.

I thought the pandemic was a crisis - but this is perhaps, far worse. 

You can watch Buy Back Your Health? NHS vs Private – Tonight at 20.30 on Thursday 30th March 

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