Andy Holt explains why private medical insurers are not benefiting from the failings of the NHS

Private medical insurers are not benefiting from the government's continued losing battle to put public confidence back into the NHS. Medical insurers are

failing to get their message across according to a survey of the public's attitudes towards the NHS and medical insurance. But brokers could give them a boost

The latest 'PHP Thermometer' shows, for the government, a disturbing further damaging reduction in the number of people confident about the level of treatment the NHS can provide.

From this third survey, carried out by ICM Research on behalf of the Private Health Partnership, events and bad publicity over recent months have further dented public confidence.

The percentage of those now more confident about NHS treatment has slumped to 25% compared with 43% in the previous PHP Thermometer in July 2005 and to 42% a year ago.

Jack Briggs, sales and marketing director at BCWA, says: "It is no surprise to see a fall in confidence in the NHS among the public. But this goes up and down depending on the perception at the time.

"And on the whole, the issue of the NHS is dealt with like a political football kicked around by the government which always puts political spin on its spending on the NHS."

But he warns: "When it comes to private medical insurance (PMI) it hasn't always come as cheaply as it should."

Raman Sankaran, director of strategic development at HealthSure, adds: "The extent to which there has been a fall in confidence is surprising and worrying."

Interestingly, lack of confidences continues high both in Scotland at 38% and in the South East at 37%. A slight glimmer of encouragement is in the 65+ age group where confidence levels increased most.

In an attempt to discover some of the reasons for the public's waning confidence, the public was asked what factors would make them seriously consider buying medical insurance. Doubling of NHS waiting lists came top of the feared list, closely followed by super-bug MRSA rates being much lower in private hospitals.

Tax relief on premiums was the third most important factor, just as the Conservative party appears to have ruled this out, to encourage taking out medical insurance. Women were much less inclined than men to consider this a reason to do so.

Lower cost for medical insurance would nudge around a third of the respondents to insurance, but last of the key influences was the likely impact on the NHS of a bird flu epidemic.

Tim Baker, commercial director at NU Healthcare, says the low public confidence rating should not be used to threaten the NHS. "Consumers see the headlines about the NHS being in a financial crisis, NHS trusts with huge deficits, so it is no surprise to see a shift in attitude against the NHS.

"The problem is that many private medical organisations are competing for NHS contracts so it serves no purpose to undermine the NHS. We need to have a right split in public and private medical services and not just denigrate the NHS."

Jan Lawson, managing director of the Private Health Partnership, agrees on this point.

"Ideally medical insurance interacts with the NHS to the benefit of both systems. Certainly the level of people feeling that they are not knowledgeable about medical insurance is unacceptably high.

"A solution to this problem could be more widespread education about the way insurance works and, crucially, examples of how it has worked in reality for millions of people."

While the findings indicate the public's lack of belief in the declared improvements in the NHS, medical insurers continue to fail in getting their messages across about the value of medical insurance.

The latest findings also show that those considering themselves not knowledgeable about medical insurance had increased to 51% with women and over 65s particularly so.

Sankaran says the industry must do more collectively to promote itself. "There needs to be a strategic initiative by a number of product providers working together to advertise and promote PMI products.

Different products
"This has happened in the past but it needs to be done a lot more, as does working with the government and even the FSA to promote PMI and the different products within PMI."

On the educational process, brokers could come to the rescue in providing fair and impartial advice.

"We believe much more needs to be done in this direction because as the survey has shown confidence levels need a boost in the worth of PMI as well as the much maligned NHS," says Lawson.

Briggs agrees, but brokers should also look at how they advise on PMI. "There is definitely a lack of knowledge about PMI among the public. This comes at a time when the number of products are growing, adding to the confusion.

"This is why the public should take expert advice from brokers, to understand what is on offer. But brokers themselves should not

just advise on price but fully explain to the customer what is available and find out what the client needs.

"Brokers have a major role here, because PMI is something that has to be sold to the public, they will not just buy it, they have to be fully convinced about its merits as an alternative to what they currently get." IT