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When it comes to the NHS, why is ‘private’ still such a dirty word?

Kate Pogson

As far as media coverage goes, this was not a good weekend for the Pharmaceutical Industry. As the election campaign ramps up, so too do the pointy-fingers.

With the NHS again set to be the number one domestic issue, the cyclical arguments, half truths and falsehoods surrounding the role of the ‘private’ sector in supporting the nation’s health is a key battleground. This weekend, war was waged.

The pharmaceutical industry is the 3rd largest sector in the UK, behind financial services and the automotive industry, but you really wouldn’t think the life sciences industry was the ‘jewel in the nation’s crown’.

‘Tory candidate slammed for her links to Big Pharma’ shouted the Daily Mirror. Excellent click-bait. It turns out that the candidate in question has worked as a Government Affairs Manager at Novartis, a company that has previously been involved in legal action to mandate that doctors in the North East should use licensed medicines for the treatment of age-related Macular Degeneration, one of which they manufactured, over cheaper, but unlicensed alternatives.

Instead of being viewed as a campaign to protect patients’ safety by using a known, tested medicine, the report accuses the company of forcing ‘huge hikes’ in the cost of vital drugs.

‘Corbyn vows to protect the NHS from US drug firms’ screeched the Guardian, stating that private US-UK talks were underway, which would allow US companies to ‘infiltrate’ the NHS and ‘hike up the prices’ of drugs.

All such reporting ignores the fact that the UK currently enjoys some of the lowest drug prices in the world.  Over many years, a succession of PPRS agreements have acted as one mechanism to balance the cost of medicines. Today’s scheme caps drug prices, delivering 5 year predictable budgeting for commissioners and payors.

While the now-settled Orkambi debate did much to colour recent industry relations with the Government, the inference from the Labour Party has been that this move was going to lead to the ‘runaway privatisation of the NHS’ – conflating, in the lay readers’ minds, issues surrounding who delivers care and whether it remains free at the point of use.

Labour will hope that such slights of hand are good politics. The idea that Donald Trump is about to buy the NHS conjures up an excellent ogre. But does it really do anything to help the public understand the complexities of the NHS and the role of the private sector in delivering good care?

Mindless scrolling through Facebook this weekend suggested such scare tactics do work… A good friend from university had shared a post where the costs of a C-Section in the USA were itemised: x-thousand dollars for the hospital stay, x-thousand dollars for the baby’s post-delivery care, etc etc. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to afford to have a baby if I lived in the US’, declared my friend. ‘Don’t let the Tories privatise the NHS: Vote Labour!’. ‘Eh?’ I thought.

Since when has a vote for the Conservative party signalled support for removing the founding principle of the NHS, that it is free of the point of use?

Non-NHS provision of care, accelerated by a succession of Governments of both hues, has sought to increase capacity in the NHS. Public awareness of this mechanism is however low, and I would bet that Joe Public also wouldn’t know that GPs are in fact private providers too. This allows for a knowingly deceptive conflation of what NHS services are and always have been delivered privately and services that might require patients to pay.

Articles screaming about the ‘privatisation of the NHS’ due to increased private delivery fuels this misunderstanding.

The cross-fire of a heavy firefight between parties in an election might not be the time for the industry to take a stand, but I can’t help thinking that this tone of reporting demonstrates how much more the industry should have done and needs to do to raise awareness of the good it does in terms of supporting the nation’s health and the value it brings to UK PLC.