UK public becoming more comfortable with healthcare in retail settings

04 August 2023 4 min. read
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The UK’s healthcare facilities are coming under intense strain, with investment failing to make its way to front-line services, and important infrastructural changes. A new study suggests that to alleviate this stress, some health interventions could be performed at retail locations instead of at traditional locations such as hospitals or GP surgeries.

The latest data shows 7.47 million people are waiting for routine hospital treatment. With investment in the NHS increasingly being absorbed by management bureaucracy, and private contracts for ‘strategic advice’, understaffed hospitals continue to struggle to meet the heightened demand of a lingering public health emergency, and an ageing population.

Amid this, recent data from the Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN) shows that insured private medical admissions have hit a post-pandemic high. The private health sector counted 134,000 treatments paid for by private insurance in the third quarter of 2022, as desperate patients turned to private healthcare options for their required treatment. Including self-pay options – which fell slightly, but are still higher than pre-pandemic levels – the number of private treatments recorded 200,000; the highest since early 2021.

UK public becoming more comfortable with healthcare in retail settings

This new ‘private demand’ for healthcare has not gone unnoticed by entrepreneurs, who smell blood in the water of a market they have long craved a bigger chunk of. With the NHS tanking after more than a decade of austerity, pay-cuts and mismanagement, Deloitte – which has itself been working to fill capacity in the healthcare sphere throughout the pandemic – has suggested that now might be the time to consider opening up certain healthcare functions for delivery in a retail setting.

Earlier in 2023, the firm polled more than 16,000 respondents from 15 countries, to gage their attitudes toward basic healthcare provision in retail locations, instead of from a healthcare provider location, like a general practitioner, hospital or pharmacy. With many people increasingly desperate to be seen quickly, it might not be considered surprising that people in the UK were most comfortable with the concept than any other country in Europe.

According to Deloitte, Europe is “the fastest-growing market in the world” for ‘in-store healthcare’. Both the UK and Ireland saw consumers very comfortable with things like blood pressure measurement, cholesterol management and sleep advice in a retail setting; while being relatively comfortable for birth control, blood tests and analysis, and physiotherapy to be similarly taken care of by retailers. But only the UK also said this level of comfort applied to burn-out and well-being interventions.

UK public becoming more comfortable with healthcare in retail settings

The UK was also only one of four countries to not find a full-body scan ‘less comfortable’, alongside Ireland, Denmark and Portugal. So what is leading these feelings? According to an examination of sentiment across the continent, the most important factors in being willing to get healthcare interventions from retail locations were having high qualifications, good hygiene, appointment availability and paying as little as possible.

But the UK bucked this trend. It was an outlier when it came to appointments being available at convenient times – more than any other country – while being less concerned with the qualifications of a provider than any country, too. This may be indicative of the growing waiting lists for NHS patients, and a desperation to be seen by anyone at all. This by no means uniform, though. Deloitte found that certain consumers tended to be less comfortable with retail healthcare than others.

Predictably, in an environment which will introduce charges for basic healthcare provision, those most comfortable with the concept were consumers with high income, who considered themselves very healthy – and so less likely to require major treatments. Deloitte concluded that by encouraging these patients to be ‘pioneers’ in retail health, they could free up space in the public health system – but also pay for innovations “that gradually lead prices to fall”, paving the way to retail-based healthcare “that is affordable and comfortable for all sectors of the public”. Whether or not this works in practice – or if it leads to a US-style system of eternal price gouging – remains to be seen.