Virgin Care Wins Bath and North East Somerset Adult Services Contract

On the 10th of November, after a long process of meetings between local council members, healthcare union staff and members of the public, Bath and North East Somerset council voted in favour of Virgin Care for its delivery of adult services in the area, rejecting the rival bid from ousted former controllers, Sirona CIC.

B&NES council have given their reasons for preferring Virgin Care for this role, citing their transforming services across the country and positive collaboration with GPs, care centres and charities as two of those at the forefront of the decision.

It is important to note that B&NES has made this decision with deep input from the local Clinical Commissioning Group and community champions over two years, so it is the culmination of a number of differing viewing perspectives and backgrounds.

The vote, which was 35/22 in favour of the Richard Branson-owned healthcare firm, marks the first time a for-profit organisation has been in charge of NHS contracts in the B&NES area. It has been met with vehement opposition from numerous individuals and local organisations since the bid was announced, and the company itself has previously been under scrutiny for its use of tax havens, quality of care, and alleged mistreatment of staff.

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National outlets have lambasted VC in the not too distant past

In 2012, a Dispatches documentary revealed how under-target a Virgin Care centre was regarding Chlamydia screening, exposed a memo asking staff to take test kits home with them, in order to increase the number of screens executed and keep them in line with national targets.

A year later, emergency department medics and the CQC expressed deep concern with practice policy, after a VC-run centre triaged a patient using a receptionist as oppose to a healthcare professional. This proved fatal, but Virgin still defended their actions at a hearing, saying that the patient was appropriately treated.

Despite only being in the market since 2010, Virgin Care currently has NHS contracts worth a reported £1bn, and provides services across the country. It being a Virgin subsidiary and having its head offices in the British Virgin Islands, means it is exempt from corporation tax, but, tax aside, the company has said that all profits made by its B&NES services are to be re-invested into local healthcare delivery. At the same time, however, it has been made clear by the company itself and from other sources that Virgin Care are not looking to make profit from this deal.

Confused yet? I am.

With this deal citing a new precedent in the volume of healthcare services of which Virgin Care have control in the UK, confusion isn’t something that benefits patients, and the majority of middling to major news networks have sensationalised this to the point of farce;

The Canary used the headline “While We’re Still Recoiling from Trump, Branson Quietly Buys up the Biggest Chunk of our NHS…”

Given that this deal has been featured in local and national news for well over a year, spawned public and political backlash (acclaim too, in fairness), and has only now reached a conclusion, the word “quiet” isn’t even slightly appropriate in this case. Headlines such as these only serve to stoke the fire.

In order to try to cut through media Chinese whispers and rhetoric, I spoke to Liberal Democrat Councillor for Oldfield Park, Bath, Will Sandry. Will attended, and was an active part of the B&NES meeting, so I asked him for his thoughts on the deal itself, and what he thinks this means for service users in the Northeast Somerset area.

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Cllr Will Sandry (Lib Dem)

Virgin Care have never had charge of a number of the services, such as social work, which are contained under this Adult Services umbrella. As I see it, this makes service users guinea pigs in this case. Would it be fair to say that this is something of a risky move on B&NES’ part?

It’s fair to describe service users as “guinea pigs” because some of the services have not been provided by a private company before, and a key element of Your Care Your Way is a redesign of services so the services themselves will change during the contact. I don’t think this is “risky” because I have faith that the wellbeing of service users will remain paramount.

During the meeting you were, along with one of your Labour counterparts, in favour of moving for a deferral of the vote so as to further scrutinise numbers you felt didn’t “stack up”, appearing to cite distraction techniques and I quote, “Jedi mind tricks”. What about the numbers and overall proposal sounded alarm bells for you?

In our meeting papers the costs of the services were listed as remaining static for 7 years. I did not have confidence that was achievable. The papers were glossy but had scant financial detail. I had also asked for details of the Virgin Care management team that would deliver the contact, but I could not get a clear answer as to how much of their time would be allocated to delivering the B&NES contact. These are the main reasons I wanted more time for scrutiny.

The most vocal reactions from the public have been almost unanimously negative; a petition, anti-privatisation websites and protest marching, as well as cries of “shame” from those who attended the meeting. We know from recent referenda and elections that small samples of public opinion may not represent the view of the community, so with that in mind, what have you and your colleagues heard from service users on the street?

Apart from the vocal reactions you describe I’ve not had any direct concerns raised by service users. I suspect that the vast majority of people don’t know or mind who delivers their care as long as it remains available to them and free at the point of use.

Conservative councillor Anthony Clarke assured the meeting that Virgin Care were not looking to make profit from this deal. I personally find it strange, and indeed improbable that a for-profit organisation isn’t looking to make a profit from a £700m deal. How is the proposed budget going to monitored and how will it be enforced by the council?

I don’t know, but would presume it will be by the Council’s Health Scrutiny Panel or the B&NES Heath and Wellbeing Board. Profit is an interesting thing. An organisation can have legitimate costs (for example the cost of using the “Virgin” brand) but not record any profits for accounting purposes. I don’t know what (if anything) Virgin Group will be charging Virgin Care for the use of the Virgin brand.

What happens if this figure is exceeded? Comparing news reports from this year, it already appears to have increased by £200m, so how does the council aim to allay concerns and potential indignation that a for-profit organisation (who controversially escape corporation tax) may possibly have a future need to utilise tax payers’ money in order to do its job? 

Savings can also be made by redesigning a service to deliver the same outcomes – this was always the aim of Your Care Your Way. Ultimately if that doesn’t work I imagine that the tax payer (local or national) will pay or there will be a reduction in the levels of service available.

Has anyone shed any light on how Virgin Care plan to reinvest profits that they have assured us they aren’t trying to make?

No

We in healthcare treat patients using a risk:benefit ratio, wherein the potential risks of a treatment should be less than the benefits they could provide in order to make them viable. Given that the issues surrounding Virgin Care’s practices have been documented nationally, were these problems taken into account and considered to be outweighed by the benefits a VC-driven service could provide?

As an opposition Councillor who voted against the deal, this is a question for those who voted in favour of it. In B&NES we have good Heath and Social Care, in part because we don’t play a political game over it. Nobody would thank us for that. If it could have been proven to me that the deal was the best for our residents I would have supported it despite any personal political concerns about privatisation. Let’s hope it is a good deal for service users, but I could not be convinced about the finances of it.

Finally, Will, our whole healthcare system hinges on its patient-centred approach. Given the vote for Virgin Care, despite the vocal opposition to it, it can be logically assumed that the majority of the council feel it will bring about positive changes. What sort of changes can service users expect to see under Virgin Care? What has been proposed that betters the existing system?

I can’t speak for those who voted for the deal, but it is logical to assume they did feel it would bring about positive changes. The contact is too big to list what specific changes might be made, but I imagine any changes will attempt to keep the same beneficial outcome for service users while reducing costs.

These represent the thoughts and opinions of Cllr Sandry himself, and are not necessarily indicative of those held by his associates, or by Bath and North East Somerset Council

Heart

 

The Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases: History and Bath Medical Museum

I must have walked past this building thousands of times over the years. I’d always admired its exterior, whose 18th century aesthetic still fits perfectly with the rest of Bath’s modernised Georgian motif. The stonework might be slightly mottled and tarnished by years of pollution, and its being surrounded by coffee shops and high-end clothing outlets *almost* detracts from the majesty the building exudes, but the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, nestled right in the North Somerset city’s centre still looks beautiful. I remember the public outcry when it was announced that a large chunk of the building had been sold, and subsequently leased to a novelty Mexican food chain; this building is a part of this city, not just for the patients treated within it, but for all of the residents of Bath.

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Despite admiring it from the outside, I’d never consciously considered its interior. I’m not sure how many people actually have, to be honest; those I questioned had either never looked past the front doors, or had simply “heard it was quite nice” through the grapevine. I recently had the opportunity to begin to learn echocardiography at the RNHRD in Bath, and whilst I was waiting for my superiors to arrive I decided to have a look around, as it was clear from stepping through the front doors that it was a building steeped in history.

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The main foyer is rather breathtaking: the original marble floors are still a prominent feature just past the reception area, paintings, such as that which is the header on this article adorn the walls and connecting the ground and first floors are beautiful, finished wood staircases that look like something out of Disney castle. I had to stop for a moment just to take it all in. Having spent a fair amount of time in hospitals, I had assumed that they (for all intents and purposes) look pretty similar; white walls, long corridors with small, commissioned pieces of generic mixed media/ abstract work hung at eye level along them, and that style of lino flooring that evokes memories of the school gymnasium, squeaking underfoot at the slightest hint of moisture on one’s shoes. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing (far from it), but the RNHRD has a unique character. It has charm and detail that I’ve only found in stately homes and upscale galleries. It also has history to rival these places.

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Frances MacDonald, 1949

The funding for the hospital was procured predominantly via a public subscription set up by Richard (Beau) Nash in 1732. Names such as Lord Palmerston, Mr Jeremiah Pierce, and Dr William Oliver are listed as donors, as well as other local and national figures, and as a result of their capital, the building, constructed as a hospital for the sick poor opened in 1742. Built using stone gifted by local legend Ralph Allen, the then Bath General Infirmary was the first hospital to offer treatment to the entire UK, leading many to view it as a foundation of the National Health Service devised in 1948.

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Locals, or those fond of UK trivia will likely already be aware of the hot springs on which Bath sits, and these were utilised in the hospital for therapeutic purposes (interestingly, Bathonians were, for a time at least, not permitted to become patients of the Infirmary, presumably because they as residents, already had a right of access to the spring waters), and these were made available to patients on condition that a fee be paid upon admission. For English patients, this was around £1.50, which later became £3, and for those from Scotland and Ireland, £3, which became £5. These sums were either paid for by the patients themselves, or on their behalf by wealthy benefactors, and covered the cost of treatment and the return home, or, in the worst case, mortality and the subsequent burial arrangements.

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Patient sedan chair

 

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A brass badge, worn by a patient whilst under hospital care

Patients were taken to the bath sites via hospital sedan chairs (designed by surgeon Archibald Cleland, subsequently dismissed for improper conduct in 1743), and impelled to wear brass badges that both identified the patient number and their ward, and to prevent drunkenness whilst out of the hospital grounds. Local landlords were forbidden from serving alcohol to patients, as it was detrimental to their recovery. Failure to adhere to this rule would have risked their licence, so it was likely seldom flouted.

The hospital was initially far smaller than its current size, with new wings and blocks being added throughout the years, including the top floor in 1793 (costing £900), renovation efforts and the implementation of additional units continuing well into the tail-end of the last century.

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The Roman pavement, discovered in 1859

When the building was being extended in the late 1850’s, a Roman pavement was discovered during the foundation digging. It is dated as hailing from between AD60 and AD410 and is still in place at the bottom of the stairs to the basement level. The mosaic is still part of a larger floor and runs underneath much of the building itself.

Given the tenure of the building within the city, it has seen its fair share of conflict; as well as being used to treat the wounded during the Jacobite Rebellion, the Crimean War, South African War and both World Wars I and II, it suffered damage due to ordinance during the latter conflict in 1942 wherein it received a direct hit. Despite this, however, the roughly 200 patients still within the confines of the hospital were uninjured.

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Damage to the RNHRD in 1942

As far as treatment goes, the hospital has been a specialist rheumatology centre since it opened, and continues to operate as such. It offers treatments for pain management, chronic fatigue and utilises hydrotherapy as it did when it was concieved. It also functions as a research centre in these areas, encompassing both in-house studies and those of a more national variety. In addition, and I feel rather interestingly given its history with servicepersons, the centre offers specialist support to ex-military personnel, regardless of the time of onset of condition, and provides pain-management and post amputation complication therapy amongst other things.

Royal Patrons have presided over the RNHRD since its foundation, with the current President being Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who has been in the position since 2006. The first, in 1745, was Frederick, Prince of Wales. In 1991, the RNHRD became an NHS Trust, and was upgraded to an NHS Foundation Trust in 2005. In February 2015, the hospital was acquired by the Royal United Hospital (RUH), Bath, which now manage the centre.

The Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases truly is a wonderful hospital, and the patients who use its services do so over a number of years,  crediting it with a “family feel”. Whilst researching this article, I spoke to a volunteer at the hospital, who told me of her time as a patient, both in and out, and her desire to provide a friendly ear to current service users. She told me that volunteers had relaxed her when she herself needed the hospital’s facilities, and it was that, combined with the care she was provided that inspired her to give back to the trust.

The family feel of the RNHRD was in jeopardy whilst the hospital was under considerable financial strain, but its acquisition by the RUH allowed it to continue to function with only minimal service absorption by the Royal United. This continued service will surely help the current patient base, and will enable the hospital to remain the part of the city that it has been since its conception.

 

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This flag hangs over the museum, and was made to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the RNHRD.

 

Rather wonderfully, the hospital contains a museum, situated in the chapel, which outlines the history of the building and the staff and patients who have used it throughout the years. Many of the photographs found in this article were taken in the museum, and it’s full of information about the building and its history; well worth a visit if you’re in the area!

Thanks to the museum staff at the RNHRD for taking the time to talk to me and allow me to take photographs. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to write this article.

If you’re eager to explore more, head over to Medical Heritage or visit the RNHRD homepage, and if you’re local to Bath, then be sure to drop into the Bath Medical Museum, situated within the RNHRD.