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Private healthcare firm paid £1m to carry out NHS hip replacements over next three months as part of drive to slash spiralling waiting lists

The South West Acute hospital in Enniskillen is being used by a private healthcare firm to carry out NHS waiting list operations
Seanín Graham

A PRIVATE healthcare company will be paid £1 million for three months' work to slash NHS hospital waiting lists in orthopaedic surgery.

The Irish News has learned that Musgrave House, which is owned by a surgeon and two doctors from Northern Ireland, will receive the fee to help clear the massive backlog for hip replacements.

Waiting lists in Northern Ireland remain the highest in the NHS with many patients waiting more than five years for "life changing" orthopaedic procedures.

Private operations began last week at the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) in Enniskillen, with 21 hip procedures performed.

A spokesman for the Health and Social Care Board confirmed there is a "£1m contract" for the work at SWAH.

"This will be allocated by the Western Trust to the provider (Musgrave House) of this initiative," he said.

He added however the private firm will be required to pay the western trust for "access and running costs of trust facilities" as part of the contract, which finishes at the end of March.

The development comes as a surgical training crisis threatens to engulf the north's health service due to a dramatic drop in training opportunities for young orthopaedic surgeons during the pandemic when thousands of planned procedures were cancelled.

In yesterday's Irish News, one medic revealed he and his colleagues have to written Health Minister Robin Swann to express concerns and admitted they felt "poorly prepared" to perform operations.

Graham Finlayson, a trainee surgeon in the Belfast trust, revealed that just five per cent of planned or 'elective' orthopaedic work had taken place over the past three months compared with pre-Covid levels.

This has left them without the vital "exposure" to surgery they require to become qualified, he said, and warned the issue will "come to a head in the next six months".

It has emerged that the SWAH private scheme - which will involve dozens of joint replacements - will not include trainee surgeons. Their involvement would have let them observe or assist in operating theatres.

When asked why this was the case, the board spokesman said the private project was a "temporary" one.

"This is one of a range of initiatives taking place to utilise additional in-house and independent sector capacity to tackle hospital waiting times - wider discussions are ongoing as to what follows thereafter and how training may be built into that," he added.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of a private hospital group in Belfast last night confirmed it was now offering training to doctors specialising in ophthalmology.

Mark Regan of the Kingsbridge group also said it was looking at other areas, including orthopaedics.

“Kingsbridge private hospital has agreed that ophthalmology trainees can attend NHS lists undertaken in Kingsbridge’s own theatres to provide surgical assistance and observe," he said.

"We are supportive of this having worked with NIMDTA (Northern Ireland Mental and Dental Training Agency) for several months to bring this to fruition and are actively exploring how this can be expanded to other specialities such as orthopaedics.

"Kingsbridge has provided theatre and ward space to the NHS throughout the pandemic in both its NI hospitals and continues to do so as the pandemic continues to impact delivery of NHS surgery".

Mr Swann said the SWAH private initiative is one of a number of projects to tackle the waiting list scandal.

"I would much rather see our hospital theatres leased to independent providers to treat Health and Social Care patients than see them lying empty and patients forced to dwell on a waiting list for even longer," he said.

"The South West Acute Hospital is a brilliant facility and a major asset for the region within the HSC estate. It would be a major disservice to the unacceptable numbers of people on a hospital list, but especially those experiencing daily pain and discomfort whilst waiting on a hip replacement, if we were not to seek to utilise the empty theatre and ward space there."

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