Moving from the NHS into the private healthcare sector

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The NHS used to be the starting point for 95% of physiotherapy graduates starting out in professional life. In recent years, however, due to dwindling wages and longer hours, working for the NHS no longer carries the appeal it once did.

The main benefit of working in the NHS hasn’t changed: clinicians are exposed to a broad swathe of cases, building up invaluable case-by-case experience from day one. But today, with the majority of practitioners aiming to move into the private sector at some point, is NHS experience still relevant?

Working for the NHS today: the pros and cons

There are still pros to working with the NHS and for many practitioners, it remains their career-long ideal. Aside from the broad experience they quickly build up, they also enjoy the freedom to simply treat their patients without the pressures of maintaining a business.

Yet the job security that once existed for public sector workers is looking increasingly shaky and the lure of far higher potential earnings in the private sector is usually what draws practitioners away. Austerity measures have seen the NHS struggling over recent years and for the majority of physiotherapists, the UK’s famous healthcare institution is now simply a stepping stone to moving into private practice.

Recent news reports paint a picture of NHS workers facing ever more challenges with tighter pay, longer hours and unpaid overtime the norm. Add to this the singular nature of NHS processes and protocols and workers who remain at the NHS for too long are in danger of limiting their chances of making a satisfying transition into the private sector.

The problem with working long-term in the NHS is that a clinician is only exposed to one way of treatment planning and patient management. IT training is often limited to older, less efficient technology than is available privately – making it potentially difficult for them to build the business skills necessary to work in the private sector.

There is certainly a lot to be said for having a secure job, with a set wage paid by the government, particularly when you first qualify. Yet working for the private sector offers far greater professional flexibility and earning potential. Ultimately, if you want to make the move from pure NHS clinician to member of a private healthcare business, it’s crucial that you set yourself some realistic expectations from the start.

Main differences between working in the public and private healthcare sectors

The main difference between the two sectors is that private healthcare practices are also businesses. As well as requiring standards of clinical excellence, a private practice depends on client acquisition, retention and recommendation to thrive. This means that clinicians must shoulder some of the responsibility for ensuring good customer service if they are to benefit from the potential earnings.

It can be a huge shock to an NHS-trained practitioner to suddenly find themselves subject to customer service performance measurement. The public sector is focused purely on standards of care. The private sector must provide care that is at least as good as the NHS whilst also generating a profit.

Well-run private practices will help you to achieve your business targets with key performance indicators (KPIs). These will vary from practice to practice but you should expect to take accountability for ensuring your patients turn up for appointments, for asking for recommendations or even for bringing on a certain number of new patients each month, for instance.

A great bonus is that you won’t be alone in your efforts to make your targets. As part of a team of practitioners, all working the same hours towards the same goal of success, private practitioners often benefit from a much-improved support network than their NHS counterparts.

How to successfully migrate from the NHS to private sector

Practitioners make the leap from public to private sector all the time. Here are some key points to remember that will help your migration go as smoothly as possible.

  • Understand you are moving into a whole new world

Be prepared to change the way you work. Remember the NHS only teaches you how to work in the NHS. The private sector is awash with options. You’ll be using new software, working with business people, perhaps a practice manager and peripheral practitioners such as yoga or Pilates instructors.

  • Be realistic in your expectations

If you’re leaving the NHS because you’re fed up, don’t expect the private sector to be a magic wand. Some things will be very different, but some things will feel the same. It’s highly likely that you’ll still be treating NHS patients, for instance, if they have been referred to you. You might even run into patients you’ve treated before.

  • If you’re setting up on your own, make a business plan

Even if you are starting out treating patients peripatetically or from your spare bedroom, draw up a business plan that looks ahead to where you eventually want to get to. Many practitioners make the mistake of focusing solely on the clinical side of their new venture and neglect the business side.

Before you know it, you can find yourself working from dawn til midnight, playing catch-up with admin. Research the tools you need, how you want your business to progress and what you need to support your growth.

  • The commercial pressures of working for a private business

Prepare yourself to replace the case-load pressures of the NHS with new commercial pressures of being part of a business. The more you can learn about running a private practice before taking the plunge, the smoother your transition from public sector to private worker will be.

Do your homework on marketing, networking and referral schemes. How are you going to make sure people get to know your business? Once you have them, how are you going to make sure they only come to you?

Be clear about the sort of practice you want to work for

While you have no choice about who you treat as an NHS worker, you can absolutely choose the kind of patients you’d like to treat in the private sector.

What’s most important to you? If you want to maximise your earnings for instance, you might need to focus on central London practices. If you want to specialise in treating sports injuries, there is no point in applying for work at a practice that focuses on post hip-replacement rehabilitation for elderly patients.

Perhaps you would like to add further specialisations to your portfolio that require more training. If so, research practices that actively support such training programmes for their clinicians. The point is, you’re going to work just as hard in the private sector as you did in the NHS, but this time, you will have far more control over the path you take.

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