I am proud of our NHS! Private healthcare will never replace it, says Speyer boss


Any doctor or nurse will explain the importance of a good bedside manner. If a doctor adopts a kind, friendly, and understanding attitude, he or she will help patients recover more quickly.

Justin Ash, the boss of the private health group Spire, has decided to extend this philosophy within the boards of directors.

As we walk around one of the group’s hospitals in Nottingham, he continually stops to greet staff and ask them about his day. Nurses, surgeons and lab technicians line up to smile and shake hands. “It’s all about the staff,” Ash says. “That’s what drives our business.”

Spire private healthcare group boss Justin Ash says private healthcare will never replace the NHS

Spire private healthcare group boss Justin Ash says private healthcare will never replace the NHS

He says he tries to visit at least one of Speyer’s 39 hospitals every week. Business is booming and scrutiny of its segment of the healthcare industry is increasing. Rising National Health Service waiting lists and strikes by hospital staff are fueling fears about the future of healthcare in the UK.

Some fear that the private sector will lead to an American-style health care system, with its horror stories of exorbitant bills and very expensive health insurance plans.

As boss of Britain’s largest private hospital operator – a FTSE250 company with a valuation approaching £1bn – one might expect Ash to be rubbing his hands at the prospect. But he categorically excludes any support for an American-style model in Great Britain.

“I met with a lot of big American health care companies and told them it wouldn’t work here,” he says. “And that’s because we are all proud of the NHS. Me included.

Ash argues that the public and private health sectors can support each other as they have done in the past.

“Our buildings can be put to the service of the NHS,” he says. “But there are patients here who don’t use the NHS, so someone else can do it.”

“We also have many NHS staff joining us. And others who join the NHS after working with us.

Ash says the NHS frequently relies on Spire’s services, but he adds that the company “is not reliant” on simply reducing excess demand. “Some of our hospitals do almost nothing for the NHS, but for some it can be up to 50 per cent of their business,” he says.

Spire’s ability to support the health service was demonstrated during the pandemic when it was called upon to carry out surgeries on NHS patients as public hospital wards were full of people affected by Covid.

Ash estimates that the number of NHS patients treated by Spire during the crisis was “in the hundreds of thousands”.

He described a growing demand for private health care. “NHS waiting lists are definitely one of them,” he says. Patients are increasingly turning to private providers to be seen more quickly.

Ash, 59, doesn’t seem out of place in the services. With his approachable demeanor and rolled-up shirt sleeves, the bespectacled boss wouldn’t stand out among a group of GPs or consultants. It is therefore a surprise to learn that he does not come from a medical background.

A political science graduate from the University of Leeds, he served as an officer in the British army in West Germany towards the end of the Cold War.

Ash does not come from a medical background and served as an officer in the British Army.

Ash does not come from a medical background and served as an officer in the British Army.

He was passionate about politics and later worked on both sides of the Atlantic – for US Democratic MP Stephen Solarz of New York and former deputy leader of the British Labor Party Roy Hattersley.

Unusually, he then chose to pursue a career in private enterprise, traveling across several sectors. After five years at US management consultancy giant Bain & Co, he spent more than a decade in the food and drink sector, including at alcohol manufacturer Allied Domecq, then as UK director from the fast food chain KFC.

He joined the healthcare industry in 2004 when he was appointed Managing Director of Lloyds Pharmacy. He stayed there for four years, then ran the Oasis dentistry chain until 2017, when it was bought by Bupa. He arrived at Spire as general manager later that year.

Ash helped steady the ship after the hospital group was hit by a £37million compensation claim from victims of disgraced breast surgeon Ian Paterson. The company had to pay out more than £27 million.

In 2021, it was forced to deal with the fallout from an attempted £1.4 billion takeover of Spire by Australian rival Ramsay Health Care. Executives from both parties agreed to the tie-up in July that year, but it abruptly collapsed later that month after a rebellion by several major investors, including its second-largest shareholder Toscafund, resulted in approval did not meet the 75 percent threshold. .

But under his tenure, things appear to have improved, with the group raking in more and more cash as demand continues to grow.

Shareholders were buoyed by Spire’s most recent results – for the six months to the end of June – when strikes by NHS doctors and nurses pushed the company’s profits to £20.3m, compared to just £3m the previous year.

According to Ash, the convenience of private health care will likely become even more attractive to the public.

He says: “The average age of our patients is around 50 years old. Many of them will continue to work and will need to be seen by a GP at a time that suits their lives.”

Ash highlights that demand for private insurance, both from individuals and businesses, has surged as pressures on the NHS leave many people worried about their ability to receive timely medical treatment.

This has ramifications beyond the NHS and could play a vital role in solving the productivity crisis.

For employers, access to care is essential if they want to prevent their employees from being struck down by illness or injury for extended periods of time.

“Some companies employ engineers and want them to be treated immediately for problems like back pain or knee problems,” says Ash.

He adds that the practice is also seeing increased demand for private GP services as patients struggle to book appointments with the NHS. There is also a growing demand for complex surgical procedures such as those treating spinal injuries and heart problems.

Ash with some of his staff at Spire Hospital Nottingham

Ash with some of his staff at Spire Hospital Nottingham

Despite claims that private healthcare is taking many of the best workers away from the NHS, he says companies like Spire are helping to stem the brain drain that has seen many British doctors and nurses being lured to countries like the Australia for higher salaries and reduced workload.

Ash says some consultants he meets have adopted an equal balance between working for Spire and the NHS, which he says allows them to look after patients in Britain rather than resorting to overseas.

“Some of these people have been working in the NHS for 20 years,” he says. “And rather than going to Australia, they will continue to serve their patients for another 20 years with us.”

Having a strong political background, Ash is quick to highlight areas of health that politicians need to pay more attention to in order to help boost the UK economy. Chief among them is occupational health – medical services often offered by companies to promote the well-being of their workers.

Ash says the government should implement “tax incentives” for workplace health to mitigate the rise in long-term illnesses that many say have hampered Britain’s post-pandemic recovery.

“We have a productivity problem,” he says. “So there needs to be a political consensus that occupational health is the way forward.”

What he most wants is for MPs to allow the private sector to help the NHS, rather than replacing it. He adds: “I strongly believe that we can contribute to the workforce of the health system because, ultimately, we are part of that system. »

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