Editorial: GPs best placed to survive economic turmoil

With the financial markets teetering on the brink of meltdown, the general consensus seems to be that Gordon Brown will hold onto his job ... for now, at least.

The irony is that the very same economic crisis that temporarily saves his career could well scupper one of his central health policies - the introduction of private providers to the primary healthcare 'market'.

Last week, Virgin Healthcare revealed it had abandoned plans to take over a practice in Swindon and scaled back proposals for a chain of Virgin-branded health centres, citing the current economic uncertainty.

This is welcome news - perhaps some good will come from the global credit crunch.

Virgin is relatively new to primary care, and it remains to be seen whether companies with a more established track record will take the same view, but this is the first sign that private providers might be worried about the profits to be made from the NHS and take a more cautious approach.

There have been concerns for some time that private companies, in particular large multinationals, are winning contracts by undercutting the GPs they are up against. Many fear these are loss-leading bids and that prices will start creeping up once they have a foothold in the health service.

In times of financial uncertainty, loss-leading makes less business sense than in times of plenty. Likewise, diversifying into a new market, as in Virgin's case, is risky, and the company is now approaching primary care more warily than it did a year ago.

Most economists predict that we have not yet reached the end of the credit crunch. If things do get worse we could see more private providers bail out of primary care - or decide not to become involved in the first place. GPs should feel heartened by this.

These developments serve to show that general practice in its current form is a fantastic model, which is tried, tested and highly successful. Practices are small businesses that operate very effectively and very efficiently. They are able to react and respond to local need and are highly valued by their patients. Can private providers claim this?

What's more, while they are affected by rising inflation, general practice is much less susceptible to economic crises than large companies with shareholders.

It's a shame that Mr Brown either does not realise this, or has chosen to ignore it. But, if the state of the economy does get worse, he may not be able to avoid the stark reality that private companies may not be best placed to provide the primary care England needs.

The safest place for general practice is in the hands of the experts - and they are GPs.

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