The growing crisis facing the NHS presents “quite a few business opportunities” for AXA to expand its private healthcare business, the French insurance group’s chief executive has said.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Thomas Buberl highlighted the mounting pressures on the health service, including record waiting lists, rising inflation pushing up costs such as the price of drugs and a crisis with recruiting and retaining staff.
“This puts, by definition, the system under strain,” the German executive said, predicting that things would get worse given the ageing population.
“With what is happening at the moment, probably the first choice of a doctor that is newly qualified, it would not be the NHS,” Buberl added, predicting that there would be a lack of incoming medical staff to make up for those retiring.
Buberl said Axa was responding by investing in the UK market, increasing the size of its telemedicine business, where it provides an online conversation with a doctor as an alternative to waiting for a GP appointment, and its support services for medical procedures.
The use of private healthcare has soared in the UK as the public finds it increasingly hard to get a GP appointment and the waiting list for routine hospital treatment in England hits a record high of more than 7.4 million people, with the NHS struggling to clear a huge backlog created by the Covid pandemic.
Last year, private hospitals treated a record 820,000 inpatients and day cases, according to the Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN), a specialist data collection organisation that tracks activity in the sector. The figures showed that more people were opting to pay for their own treatment, prompting “a new normal” in the country despite a public health service.
The health secretary, Steve Barclay, called on Friday for more private and third sector providers to be used by the NHS to help cut waiting lists. He also announced eight more private community diagnostic centres. This will increase the number run by private providers from four to 12 out of a total of 114 NHS diagnostic centres.
Labour has also pledged to use the private sector to bring down the backlog. The party puts the number of patients missing out on treatment because of underuse of the private sector at 331,000. The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said: “The next Labour government will use spare capacity in the private sector to get patients seen faster.”
AXA pivoted to focus more on the healthcare industry a few years ago. However, on Friday its half-year results showed an increase in private medical claims had reduced the profits of its UK arm.
Last week, the insurer signed a deal for €650m (£560m) to acquire Laya Healthcare, a subsidiary of AIG that claims to have a 28% share of the health market in Ireland.