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Recent deaths at Priory hospitals raise considerable questions about the role of private providers in the NHS

Last week it was reported that the inquest into the death of a 14 year-old, who was being treated at a private hospital run by the Priory Group, found a catalogue of serious failings by the hospital in the months prior to her death.

Amy El Keria was a mental health patient at the Priory Ticehurst House hospital in East Sussex and her care was being paid for by the NHS. She had multiple problems including Tourette syndrome, ADHD and anxiety over gender identity and was admitted to the Priory after attempting to use a ligature at home.

Despite her telling staff she was considering ending her life, her risk level was mistakenly downgraded from high to medium and opportunities to remove a scarf from her room were missed. When Ms El Keria was found unconscious having tied a scarf around her neck, there were delays in calling for a doctor and calling 999. Staff were not trained in resuscitation and the available oxygen mask did not fit.

The inquest jury concluded that she had not intended to take her own life and may have lived had she received proper care. The case is the latest in which the private hospital group, which receives 85% of its income from the public sector, has faced severe criticism and raises considerable questions about how private companies are operating within the NHS.

The treatment received by patients in private hospitals is a much neglected area of patient safety that will only get worse as increasing numbers of private hospitals are contracted to carry out NHS functions.

As a medical negligence lawyer I have witnessed failings at private hospitals for over twenty years. There is a perception that patients will receive better treatment in the private sector, however, this is not always the case.

As we see increasing numbers of NHS contracts won by private organisations, we need to acknowledge that their primary duty is to their shareholders with profits in mind. This could potentially impact upon standards of care.

In the case of Ms El Keria and other children who have died whilst in care of the Priory Group inquest juries have heard evidence of poor and inadequate staffing levels and training, inadequate risk assessment, poor communication amongst staff and a failure to keep parents informed about their children.

Sadly, this is not a problem restricted to the Priory Group. In recent private healthcare cases I have dealt with, I have seen poor quality nursing, failures to diagnose serious conditions, inadequate consultant cover and fragmented services. Often it is the NHS that is left to pick up the pieces for these failures.

Whilst negligence is by no means limited to the private sector, the poor quality of care given by the Priory Group indicates a need for far closer scrutiny of private providers to ensure patients are receiving high standards of care and that such arrangements provide value for money.