Research carried out at Imperial College London has found that private sector and other alternative providers of GP services in the NHS do not perform as well as traditional GP practices. 

Since 2004, for-profit companies such as Virgin Healthcare and Care UK, as well as voluntary organisations and social enterprises have been able to win contracts to provide GP services. The study found that 347 of the 8,300 general practices in England are run under ‘alternative provider medical service’ contracts. 

According to the analysis carried out by Imperial College London, these providers perform worse than typical surgeries on 15 of 17 key indicators, such as patient satisfaction, diabetes control and keeping patients out of hospital. They also had higher hospital admission rates. 

Supporters of private and voluntary providers in the health service criticised the study, saying that it did not necessarily compare like-for-like GP practices. Typically, these providers are based in more deprived, younger and more diverse populations than average GP practices, but the researchers have given assurances that their results have been adjusted to take these factors into account. 

Dr Christopher Millett, from the School of Public Health at Imperial, said the findings were significant in the context of growing private provision in the NHS, which in 2013/14 accounted for 6.1 per cent of NHS spending, a figure that is expected to rise when data for the following year is published. 

“This study provides data to inform the debate about the growing role of the private sector in the NHS,” he said. “New providers were allowed into the primary care market to stimulate competition but our findings suggest that the introduction has not led to improvements in quality and may have resulted in worse care.” 

Dr Tim Ballard, vice chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that the College was “not opposed to putting services out to tender, as long as the decision to do this is made in the best interests of patients in the local area.” 

He added: “The study also demonstrates that instead of encouraging more private sector involvement in the provision of GP services, what we need – and what our patients need – is significantly more investment for existing general practice services and thousands more GPs.” 

Rebecca Morgan, an associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team, said: “At Penningtons Manches, we often deal with clients who have suffered as a result of negligent care provided by their GP practice. With reports of increasing waiting times and growing pressure on A&E departments becoming more prevalent, it is important to ensure the front line of health care is both available and up to standard.”