Minister pledges DoH will maintain NHS competition

Reform NHS Conference: Competition

There will be no change in the DoH attitudes to competition and choice, new health minister Mike O'Brien has suggested.

Speakers at an event on the future of the NHS, run by think tank Reform, in London last week called for more competition to increase productivity now that NHS funding was declining.

'If we are serious about reform, we have to use competitive tendering a lot more,' said Nick Bosanquet, professor of health policy at Imperial College.

He cited a report by economist Deanne Julius which found tendering can cut costs by 30 per cent without affecting quality.

But Mr O'Brien seemed to lack the appetite either to increase or cut back competition. 'I do not believe in competition for the sake of it,' he said. 'It is about what is best for the patient.'

Mr O'Brien denied that the NHS financial crisis was as serious as critics had suggested.

'I think we can overdo the difficult decisions. There is still growth in the NHS, what we are saying is that the increase is now starting to level off,' he said. 'We are not facing budget crisis today or in the next year.'

Focusing on higher quality would prevent future health problems and cut costs, he said.

Elsewhere at the event, NHS North West chief executive Mike Farrar argued that choice alone would not boost quality.

'If you live in Whitehaven, are you really going to travel to Bolton just because they have a slightly higher quality offering?' he asked. 'Perhaps the NHS needs something else as well as choice.' He suggested bonuses or other incentives for clinicians offering quality services.

Other speakers said competition was hampered by prejudice against private providers.

Professor Bosanquet said 'propaganda' meant private providers were criticised even when they offered data to show the quality of their work.

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb agreed, pointing to recent problems at NHS hospitals in Maidstone and Mid Staffordshire.

'Imagine if it was a private company that ran those services. The whole of private healthcare would have been condemned,' he said.

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