NHS cancer centre loses scanning contract to private firm

NHS chiefs are pushing through plans to let private companies take over scanning services that are vital in treating cancer patients, having told ministers last week that privatisation was harming patient care.

Despite its international reputation for cancer care, Churchill hospital in Oxford has lost its contract to carry out PET-CT scans to InHealth, a private company, as part of the tendering process, the Guardian can reveal.

Doctors at the hospital said they were “disgusted” by the loss of the contract, warning that people receiving cancer treatment in the hospital will have to be taken by ambulance to two new locations at which InHealth’s scanners will be located. The decision has raised questions about NHS England’s professed desire to end the outsourcing of patient care, which it outlined in a detailed policy document released at a board meeting last week.

The Churchill is the first NHS hospital to lose out as a result of NHS England deciding in 2016 to put positron emission tomography-computed tomography services out to tender. The 3D scans of inside the body help doctors spot tumours and check if cancer treatment is working.

NHS England initiated the tender process to save money. However, major teaching hospitals, including King’s College hospital in London, and cancer hospitals such as the Christie in Manchester, are also at risk of having PET-CT services handed to the private sector.

NHS England has invited profit-driven companies to bid against NHS trusts for contracts to provide PET-CT scanning in 11 different areas of England.

Labour demanded that the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, block the sell-off.

“This latest NHS privatisation exposes as utterly hollow the health secretary’s promises to parliament that there will be no privatisation on his watch,” said Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health and social care secretary.

“Just last week, NHS England claimed it wanted to bring an end to the constant tendering of contracts that the Lansley reorganisation ushered in. Patients will therefore consider it bewildering this privatisation has been allowed to proceed.”

Oncologists at the Churchill are “very concerned” by InHealth – a British company that already provides diagnostic services to the NHS – starting to provide PET-CT scans to the 2 million people who live in the Thames Valley area.

The hospital, which has performed that role since 2005, will now have to hand back the two scanners it leases in order to produce the images.

“Another provider might offer scans more cheaply, but will they match the quality?” an oncologist said.

“We’re worried people may end up needing rescanning and, at the end of the day, ultimately it is patients who will suffer.”

The expertise of the Churchill’s nuclear medicine department in undertaking high-quality PET scans will be lost to the NHS, the doctor added.

Specialist cancer doctors at Oxford University hospitals NHS trust, which runs the Churchill, said they have “concerns about the potential impact on the safety and quality of patient care at the loss of the current PET-CT service at the Churchill”.

They added: “If the service was no longer provided here, it would mean that very sick patients at the Churchill would need to travel off-site for a scan, which could have a negative impact on their health.”

Paul Evans, who runs the NHS Support Federation, which monitors privatisation of healthcare, said: “There’s a jarring contradiction between the proposals to privatise these cancer services and recent statements from NHS England about the failure of this kind of tendering.

“PET-CT is of crucial importance in the management of patients with cancer. So why risk the care of patients by taking this service away from a world-renowned centre with an established team of experts in the field, working together within the NHS, to move the service into the private sector?”

InHealth did not respond to requests for comment.

NHS England insisted existing EU-wide procurement law meant it had to tender the services. “The law is as yet unchanged in the way we recently recommended it should be, so in the meantime, existing procurement rules apply. In the Thames Valley, this particular process means two new sites being introduced for this particular scanning,” a spokesperson said.


Leave a Reply