Private Business Intermediaries

NHS Privatisation: Pathology down the Pan?

02/10/2012 | By Sharmila Chauhan
An investigation by Corporate Watch suggests that privatisation of the pathology services at both King’s College Hospital and Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust may be responsible for clinical errors, financial losses and loss of staff morale.

The GSTS Pathology venture, which describes itself as “an exemplar of public private partnership in the health sector” was created between the two hospitals and Serco in 2010 and presented an outsourcing opportunity which was hoped to increase standards as well as save the NHS money. However, a recent review of the ‘performance’ of the laboratories in St Thomas' Hospital show that there were 46 occasions were processing of pathology results exceeded the target times (2011) with “critical risk levels” breached 14 times. There were also over 400 clinical “incidents” which included losing or mislabelling patients’ blood and cell samples. These statistics are higher since the takeover of NHS pathology labs by GSTS.

There also appears to be concerns around the malfunctioning IT system which may have been responsible for an incident where a patient was given “inappropriate blood” after their medical history was not “flagged” up. Kidney damage results were also incorrectly calculated after a “software fault” in May this year.

Overall, the venture has reported £6 million loss (in 2011) together with “higher than expected” laboratory costs. In actual fact, it appears that the merger, far from saving the NHS money requires NHS funding to keep it going: King’s Hospital accounts report that it made an £800,000 loss on its investment in GSTS in 2011 and ST Thomas’s has invested millions into setting up the venture.

Although Serco has brought in consultants (costing £5 million to implement a “transformation programme” in its first two years) a significant number of staff have left, and replaced by new recruits are "less well trained". One member of staff told Corporate Watch that morale was “miserable”. Various investigations, including the Care Quality Commission (June 2012) said GSTS was “not compliant” with the regulation to ensure staff were “properly trained and supervised, and have the chance to develop their skills”.

Future plans for the department include relocation of most services to King’s College Hospital. St Thomas will downsize to provide an “Essential Services Laboratory”. During this process there will be 13 staff redundancies at St Thomas’s but only an increase of five staff at King's.

Staff say that the processing equipment at King's “simply won't cope, as it is frequently full in the evenings” and that “if something goes wrong with one of the automated analysers or there is an abnormal test result, the lack of senior staff such as doctors, registrars or biomedical scientists on the night shift could lead to quite serious reporting errors”.