‘My GP suggested it’: Brits explain why they went to a private clinic for surgery

OOne in 10 planned NHS operations in England are now carried out by private hospitals, according to figures from the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, the professional body representing private healthcare providers. Here, three patients explain why they recently had to go to the private sector for surgery.

‘It took over my life, but I hate having to pay’

Alan Gregory paid for private surgery after an enlarged prostate seriously affected his quality of life Photo: Guardian Community

Since the pandemic, Alan Gregory, 62, had increasingly worse problems caused by an enlarged prostate. Over the past year it started to seriously affect his quality of life: he had to self-catheterize daily and suffered from a urinary tract infection every few months. “It had really gotten to the point where it was taking over my life,” he said. “During urinary tract infections I would flow significant amounts of blood – it was disturbing.”

After an NHS referral, he was told in October 2023 that the waiting time for Holep surgery was 18 months. “At first I just accepted it – and then one or two weeks later I got another infection and decided I really couldn’t keep doing that anymore. The only way to make it happen faster was to pay,” says Gregory, a recently retired NHS project manager in Norwich.

After arranging a private appointment with a consultant in December 2023, he underwent the operation in February, at a cost of just under £8,000. He was angry that the long wait was pushing him toward private health care. “I hate that I have been put in a position because the Tories failed to pay,” he said, adding that he was aware he was lucky to be able to afford it. “Most people can’t do that and just have to wait 18 months for a list.

“The reason for the wait is underfunding by the government. I am in no way critical of the wonderful people who work in the NHS and provide first class healthcare despite these challenges. We are all suffering from the cuts.”

However, he added that the treatment was “absolutely worth” the money he spent on it. “The treatment has already been life-changing. I now feel like the future is positive, instead of worrying about how that side of my health will deteriorate.”

‘You don’t want the risk of sepsis again’

Paul Wilson said he was disappointed at having to resort to the private sector. Photo: Guardian Community

After developing a fever in September 2022, 80-year-old Paul Wilson was hospitalized with biliary sepsis. He had been controlling the symptoms of irritable bowel with medication and had undergone regular check-ups for “sludge” in his gallbladder in the previous three years.

After a nine-day hospital stay, Wilson was told that the biliary sepsis was caused by E coli in his gallbladder, and he was referred to have the organ removed.

“My GP told me that if you can, I would propose privately,” said Wilson, who lives in Worcestershire. “They said it could take 12 months. If you can get rid of the gallbladder, do it, you don’t want to run the risk of E coli and sepsis again.”

Wilson was shocked: “Sepsis, that’s what you see plastered on the side of buses saying it kills people. We all know that sepsis kills very quickly, which was one of the reasons we decided to have it done privately.” But he said he wasn’t too surprised by the long wait: “With the hit of the pandemic, I have also seen the impact on my GP surgery.”

After a consultation with a private healthcare provider in late 2022, he underwent gallbladder removal surgery (also known as cholecystectomy) in February 2023 at a cost of £6,800. “It was a lot of money – I consider myself lucky,” he said.

Wilson said he knew several people who had chosen to undergo private surgeries in recent years, such as knee surgery and hip replacements.

He said he was disappointed that he had to resort to the private sector. “I’d rather the NHS do it,” he said. “But given the choice and the circumstances, we decided to do it. The service was exemplary – but my (previous) care in an NHS hospital was also exemplary. My health is much better now.”

‘My pension amount is now simply gone’

Helen, a semi-retired frontline worker in south-east England, has spent almost £50,000 of her pension savings on major spinal surgery to get her life back after two years of debilitating pain.

Helen, 56, suffered extreme lower back and leg pain in September 2021, caused by a dog colliding with her leg in the park. Although not caused by the trigger, she was diagnosed by the NHS in November 2021 with spondylosis, followed by a pars defect (a condition affecting the lower back), and was offered scans and physiotherapy. She said six months of physiotherapy, starting in early 2022, produced no improvement, and she was offered pain treatment and a steroid epidural, which she said also did not help.

“I rarely went outside during these two years… because of the extreme pain I had while sitting, standing or walking. Life basically stopped in 2021,” she said. Desperate, she booked a consultation with a neurosurgeon in May 2023 and was told she needed surgery.

Helen asked if it would be possible for the neurosurgeon, who also works within the NHS, to do this within the NHS rather than privately. A referral could be made, she was told, but the operation would likely involve a wait of 18 months to two years. “My husband and I discussed it and he said: you have been out of life for two years, do you really want to wait another two years?”

She had spinal surgery in August 2023 and now manages her pain with over-the-counter medications, rather than the stronger painkillers she previously took. It cost her a whopping £48,345.

Helen said that although she would no longer be able to work in a physical role, the operation gave her “back the ability to have a functional day”. “I can take short walks and shower without being in excruciating pain. It has given me my life back.”

But the financial blow is enormous. “I was absolutely sad that I had to go private. This has affected both of us; we have never seen ourselves paying for something like this in our lives. We managed our finances carefully and always saved where we could. But that lump sum (which we can access when we retire)… That lump sum is now simply gone.’