Six people may have permanent eye damage due to firm’s alleged failure to provide proper follow-up care
Six people are feared to have suffered irreversible sight loss because of the failings of a privately run clinic at an NHS hospital, raising fresh fears about the government’s plans to open up the health service to the commercial sector.
In an unprecedented move, GPs have been advised to consider alternative clinics for their patients because of “worrying concerns” about the services offered at a hospital in Hertfordshire. The surgical clinic, owned by Carillion, a construction firm which was formerly part of Tarmac, has only carried out NHS services at Lister hospital since October but it has already been the subject of criticism from the Care Quality Commission regarding waiting times for a range of services.
Now it has emerged that GPs in the area have been warned by their local representative body of allegations that permanent damage may have been inflicted on some patients with serious eye conditions because of a lack of follow-up care after treatment.
A spokesman for the clinic confirmed that it was investigating the condition of six patients who “had disruption to their treatment”, although she added that “no direct conclusions can be drawn at this stage” because “many eye conditions are of a degenerative nature, affected by other conditions and often age-related which can mean that sight will deteriorate as part of the natural disease process.”
It is feared that many more people with glaucoma, retinal deterioration and other serious eye complaints have also not had the appropriate follow-up appointments at the surgery run by Clinicenta, a wholly owned subsidiary of Carillion. Officials from the Care Quality Commission made another visit to the centre on Thursday as part of their investigation into standards.
The warning to GPs came in an email from Dr Peter Graves, chief executive of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire local medical committee (LMC), a statutory body for GPs. It said that local optometrists “believe that some patients, who should have had follow-up consultations since the change of service to the Clinicenta service but have failed to get this, may have irreversible sight-loss, which should have been prevented”. Graves added in his email that GPs “should not refer patients to a service for which they have reasonable and genuine concerns that the quality is substandard”.
Speaking to the Observer, Graves said: “We are disappointed that it has got to this stage. We understand that the primary care trust had been working with the clinic for over nine months to resolve these issues and we understand the Department of Health is well aware of this.”
The Conservative MP for Stevenage, Stephen McPartland, who said he had met the health minister Simon Burns to discuss the case, has called for the clinic to close, adding that “time has run out for Clinicentre Carillion and they should not be involved in managing the Surgicentre”.
Christina McAnea, head of health at Unison, said she feared that the problem could be repeated around the country as the government opens up the health service to private firms under its controversial Health and Social Care Act. She said: “The government’s drive towards NHS privatisation is leaving patients vulnerable to poor care and support at surgery centres like the one at the Lister hospital. It is potentially the tip of the iceberg in terms of the clinical risk of fragmented health services.
“The Conservatives talk about patient choice, but many patients would have been unaware of the difficulties that they would face by choosing the privately run Surgicentre. These companies see the Health and Social Care Act as a big opportunity to increase their business, but safeguarding patients has to be the number one priority.”
Lesley Watts, the deputy chief executive of NHS Hertfordshire, confirmed they were reviewing cases where “patients were not followed up in a timely way” and had demanded a raising of standards.
The clinic said it was taking the matter “extremely seriously”. It said: “We would like to reassure patients that concerns have not been raised regarding the competence of our clinical teams. More than three quarters of patients attending the eye clinic rate their experience as very good or excellent, a rating that is continuing to improve. The matters raised by the LMC date back several months to April and before.”