Advising with empathy and experience

Private contractors and the NHS.


In a time where privatisation of the NHS is the most hotly debated topic in the country one private company has led NHS hospitals into a “series of clinical and financial failures” it has been revealed.

GSTS Pathology was a joint venture between Serco and Kings College and St Thomas’ hospitals which since 2009 provides both hospitals with pathology services, services that account for 70% of all patient diagnoses. 

Information obtained by non-profit research group Corporate Watch show that in 2011 400 clinical incidents occurred in GSTS labs, mistakes included losing and mislabelling samples and also exceeding monthly turnaround times for tests 46 times. “Critical risk levels” were breached 14 times.

GSTS, who describe themselves as “an exemplar of public private partnership in the health sector”, have had numerous IT problems which in January 2012 led to a patient receiving “inappropriate blood” due to patient history not being flagged. In May kidney damage results were processed incorrectly by a software fault and in June the labs blood group analysers had to be shut down for four days after being infected with a computer virus.

Serco, who have a majority share in GSTS, admitted an increase in 2010 and stated “There have been a small but significant number of clinical incidents some of which could have had serious consequences for patients.”

GSTS also admitted that the joint venture did not get off to a great start and “the corporate functions have not always provided a joined-up  service” after it reported losses of £5.9 million and needed cash injections from hospitals in order to stay afloat.

A report by the Health and Safety Executive described the competency levels of some staff as “deficient”. Furthermore an investigation carried out by the Care Quality Commission in June said GSTS was not providing adequate training or supervision and that staff were not given the opportunity to develop their skills.

GSTS responded by saying procedures had been tightened and that quality levels had been restored to satisfactory levels.

Archie Prentice, president of the royal College of Pathologists, said that it was “a concern that such actions had taken place. Frankly it’s a bit bizarre. We have no problem with contracting out but there are worries because we know private firms are pulling back from pathology when there’s less money on the table.”

In response GSTS issued a statement saying “The safety of patients and the quality of our services is the foremost priority of the GSTS. The first two years of the partnership were operationally difficult and the necessary change did not happen as quickly as the partners had hoped. The organisation provides high quality pathology services, which it would be happy to measure against any other in the NHS.”

Richard Wood from the CNCI team commented on the news “for each and every patient affected by such an incident these findings will be deeply distressing. Patients entrust their medical issues to GPs and to hospitals within the NHS. The fact that crucial tests are carried out by private contractors may come as a shock. The reality that the company has admitted such failings will add to their concerns”