Non-emergency appointments, including diagnostic tests, procedures and operations, made up 48% of the healthcare accessed privately in Great Britain over the last year, according to recent polling by YouGov.

Community pharmacist Ade Williams confirmed that in community pharmacies, many patients were opting for private services due to better availability, but warned NHS commissioning was failing to keep pace with the innovation of private services and that this in turn would lead to health inequalities.

Of the 8,858 British adults surveyed by YouGov last month, 13% said that over the last year, they had accessed private healthcare for their own health conditions or those of an immediate family member, while 27% considered using private healthcare for themselves or a family member but did not because they could not afford it.

And one third (33%) of those who accessed private healthcare for themselves or family members had done so for the first time in the last twelve months.

Almost half (48%) of Britain’s private healthcare appointments were for non-emergencies, while 17% were for minor illnesses or injuries.

Over half (57%) of those who used or considered using private healthcare for themselves or a family member over the last twelve months said that they did so in order to be seen more quickly, while for 11%, private healthcare was the only option available.

Among those that paid for healthcare privately, the median spend on was £500, with nearly a quarter (24%) using money from a savings account to pay for healthcare services privately, while 29% used their disposable income.

One in four people who used private healthcare paid for it through a private healthcare scheme at work, while 14% paid into a private insurance scheme to fund it.

Nearly one in 10 (8%) of people who used private healthcare for themselves or a family member borrowed money to do so, with 6% borrowing from friends, family or others, and 2% taking out a loan to pay for healthcare.

Community pharmacist Ade Williams told The Pharmacist that pharmacies were already seeing patients opt for private services, because they were more accessible or perceived to be more accessible than accessing healthcare through the NHS.

For instance, he said he saw some patients choosing a private blood pressure check because they were able to access it more flexibly, since the check could be provided by pharmacy technicians. Until very recently, under the NHS service patients had to wait for the pharmacist to become available, until the rules around the service delivery were changed earlier this month.

Mr Williams added that many pharmacies were choosing to provide private services to respond to patient need as well as being ‘pushed’ to do so by inadequate NHS funding.

He said that it was ‘frustrating’ for pharmacies that private services allowed them to be more innovative and flexible, while some NHS services seemed to be ‘poorly designed’.

He described the situation as ‘tragic’, saying that it would exacerbate health inequalities as those with the most health needs would not be able to access the highest quality private services.

It was also ‘very worrying’ that the future sustainability of community pharmacy might rely on the provision of private services, added Mr Williams.

Referring to the example of dentistry, he said that an increasing move towards providing private services ‘never bodes well for addressing health inequalities or long-term accessibility’.

He added that for community pharmacy, ‘that is becoming the direction of travel that we are seeing emerge’.

For example, Mr Williams suggested that where private contraception services were accessible for the patient and profitable for the pharmacy, contractors might be reluctant to provide a similar service through the NHS contract, because the NHS funding does not allow for the development of a sustainable service.

While he said that investment in private services in community pharmacies would lead to ‘innovation and excellence’, he warned that ‘part of our population would become underserved’.

‘Unfortunately, the history of NHS commissioning, including pace and ambition, seems to have never been able to keep up with the innovation of the profession. We know that the commissioning lags behind what is possible and what can be done well,’ he said.

‘It is continuing to drive a wedge,’ Mr Williams said. It ‘must not be the case that when you commit to doing the best for your community’, community pharmacists can only do so through designing a private service that ‘cuts out a proportion of your community’ who can’t afford to access it’, he added.

Meanwhile, Thorrun Govind, England chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and community pharmacist, said it was a shame that people felt that they had to pay for healthcare privately if they were unable to access it in a timely manner through the NHS.

‘That leaves people in a difficult position, so I really empathise with people who are having long wait times and having to go down the private route. And we have to recognise that many of those may be sacrificing other areas of their lives in order to fund private healthcare, which is obviously not the focus of the NHS,’ she told The Pharmacist.

She added that community pharmacies could provide an accessible place for people to access NHS services if they were commissioned to do so, but that appropriate resources and funding were not in place to make this possible.