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Hospital docs ‘caught out’ by freebies for referrals probe

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An investigation has revealed potential conflicts of interest in referrals to private hospitals, which could be putting patient safety at risk.

The report by the Centre for Health and the Public Interest found more than 600 medical consultants own shares or equipment in the private hospitals where they work and to which they refer patients.

The consultants who own shares and equipment in the private hospitals also carry out work in them and receive a fee for doing so. In some cases, consultants receive a fee each time their equipment is used, although the report found this was a very small proportion of the total number of medical consultants.

The consultant specialties with the largest number of shares or equipment are in oncology, orthopaedics and ophthalmology.

David Rowland, the think tank’s director and author of the report, warned that share ownership is linked to the harmful over treatment of patients and is a patient safety risk.

“Research shows that where consultants own shares or equipment in hospitals patients often receive more treatment than is necessary due to the financial incentives to over treat,” he said. “The breast surgeon Ian Paterson carried out unnecessary cancer surgery on 750 women and deliberately harmed them in order to benefit financially. The existence of these financial incentives is therefore a major patient safety risk.”

In total, £40m has been spent by NHS trusts in private hospitals where their consultants own shares. The think tank also found that out of 265 NHS consultants who own shares or equipment and work in the NHS, only 19 have declared these interests publicly. It said this is in breach of NHS England guidance on conflicts of interest.

Rowland said that in order to encourage consultants to refer patients to their hospitals some private hospitals have provided them with lavish hospitality. This includes individual trips to cricket and Wimbledon matches worth over £1,000, Golf tournaments, dinners, Christmas hampers and comedy nights.

Look out for an analysis about the potential implications of the findings for the medical insurance industry