Jeremy Hunt has told independent hospitals that they could be placed in ‘special measures’ if they are rated ‘inadequate’ by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

In an unprecedented move, the Health Secretary wrote to independent hospital chief executives today warning of a raft of measures to strengthen quality and accountability in the sector following recent high-profile safety failures and concerns raised by the CQC.

He said NHS trusts rated ‘inadequate’ were subject to rapid enforcement action, including leadership changes and extra oversight. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is now looking at what ‘similarly robust action could be taken to ensure rapid improvements from private providers’.

The DHSC is also developing proposals to ensure the NHS can secure adequate remuneration from independent hospitals after dealing with the consequences of clinical negligence, said Hunt.

He told HSJ: ‘We…have a responsibility to consumers who pay for their care privately to make sure this is a market in which they can be confident their care is safe and it’s sadly not the case that just because you have a nice reception and carpeted corridors that automatically means that care is going to be of an equally high quality.’

The safety of patients in the independent sector is coming under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Paterson case. In April, the CQC’s State of Care report criticised ‘informal’ monitoring and governance of clinicians working in independent hospitals while the coroner investigating the death of Peter O’Donnell at BMI Healthcare’s Beaumont Hospital raised concerns with the Health Secretary about patient safety in the private sector.

Hunt said the NHS had ‘been on a long and hard journey’ to address safety issues in the wake of Mid Staffs but there was a risk its efforts were not being matched in some parts of the independent sector. His letter calls on independent sector providers to develop clear processes for transferring patients to critical care facilities when their condition deteriorates and strengthen governance arrangements. In addition, he indicated that requirements to report comprehensive data sets to PHIN could be strengthened and that the independent sector should make a ‘meaningful contribution’ to the government’s apprenticeship program.

Independent providers have been given two weeks to respond to the Health Secretary’s concerns with ‘clear actions’.

‘Like many of my predecessors on both sides of the political divide, I believe that the independent sector can play a useful role in adding capacity, promoting innovation and offering patients choice. However, if the sector is to partner with the NHS and benefit from our world-leading medical training, we need urgent assurances that you will get your house in order on quality and safety, as well as a commitment to take rapid action to match the NHS’s world-recognised progress on transparency,’ said the Health Secretary.

NHS Partners Network chief executive David Hare acknowledged that although the CQC report had found the majority of care in the independent sector was high quality and compared favourably to similar services in the NHS, it had also identified areas for improvement.

‘As responsible providers of healthcare services independent sector hospitals want to do more to ensure that the quality of care in the sector is consistently of the highest possible quality,’ he said. ‘We will of course be responding to Mr Hunt’s important letter to provide reassurance to him, regulators and to patients of the quality of care delivered in the independent hospital sector and to set out what is being done across the whole system to address the issues that he raises.’