As a result of the Health and Social Care Act (2012), private health companies (such as Circle, Care UK and BMI Healthcare) are providing an increasing number of NHS services. These include mental health services, diagnostics (e.g. blood tests, scans and X-rays), GP and out of hours services, to name a few. Recent figures suggest that private firms have already been awarded contracts worth £7 billion, and the figure is likely to reach £20 billion in the next few years.
However, not many patients using these services realise that they are privately run, largely because many private providers use the famous blue NHS logo.
For example, Croydon Urgent Care Centre is run by Richard Branson’s Virgin Care (along with over 200 other services across the NHS). But there is no obvious indication that the Centre’s services are provided by a private company, no sign of the Virgin logo. The home page of the Centre’s website only carries logos for the NHS and Choices (an NHS website offering information for patients), while an investigative journalist visiting the centre found that the signs for the clinic only said ‘NHS’ and staff wore NHS identity badges on NHS lanyards. According to a Virgin spokesperson, this was because “as we are providing NHS services, NHS brand guidelines require us to ensure that the NHS is the primary logo”. (see http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/nhs-privatisation-how-private-firms-1918235 )
Certainly, NHS guidelines from the Department of Health’s NHS ‘Branding Team’ appear to actively encourage private companies to make use of the NHS logo. For example, they suggest that, with the “more diverse healthcare system” we have now, using the NHS logo will help to reassure patients that services provided by private companies “are part of the NHS family, providing NHS services in line with NHS values” (see http://www.nhsidentity.nhs.uk/tools-and-resources/communications-partnerships).
But at the same time, the Branding Team insist that private companies that are paid to provide NHS care should make it clear that they are delivering services “on behalf of the NHS”. For example, guidance referring to ambulance services says that private ambulance companies should not carry the NHS logo on their vehicles unless both the private ambulance vehicle and driver are solely contracted to a particular NHS Trust. Only in this scenario could the private ambulance company – with the Trust’s permission – mark their vehicles with the NHS Trust’s logo, and only if there was also a statement to say that the company was working ‘in partnership’ with the Trust, so not NHS per se. (see http://www.nhsidentity.nhs.uk/need-help).
Do those private companies that use the NHS logo really sign up to NHS values, as the Branding Team suggests? One of the core NHS values identified in its Constitution is that “patients must come first in everything the NHS does” and yet this may clash with the top priority of a private company, which is to act in a way that will promote the success of the company, and its legal responsibility to act in the best interests of shareholders.
In future, will successive government ‘reforms’ turn the NHS into little more than a kite mark, a stamp of approval for individual organisations contracted to operate within a healthcare system made up purely of private providers? This is not the case yet, but with both the NHS and profit-driven private companies using the same logo to ‘brand’ their services, the NHS logo is no longer a reliable indication of who is providing an NHS service. This means:
• Private companies, if hidden behind an NHS logo, will not be fully accountable for the care they give: poor care could be unfairly attributed by patients to NHS service providers; and
• If all health services – whether privately provided or not – use the NHS logo, the extent of the privatisation of the NHS will be disguised.
What you can do
- if your GP is referring you for treatment or investigations, make it clear that you want to be referred to an NHS provider, and not a private provider using the NHS logo.
- sign a petition to Virgin asking them to stop using the NHS logo and to tell patients that they are not an NHS provider: action.peoplesnhs.org/page/s/peoples-nhs—virgin-petition .
updated June 2015