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Serco pulls out of out-of-hours care in Cornwall

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7549 (Published 17 December 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7549
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. 1London

The private contractor Serco has reached a “mutual agreement” to end its GP out-of-hours contract in Cornwall 17 months early. The embattled company, which this week has been forced to hand over contracts for electronic tagging in the criminal justice system, also announced that it is to pull out of running Braintree Hospital in Essex after a review of its healthcare operations.

Serco has been extensively criticised over its out-of-hours service, including in reports from the Care Quality Commission and the National Audit Office.1 2 These reports were prompted by whistleblowers’ claims that Serco’s service was understaffed and that it was altering data to ensure it was meeting its targets.

In July the parliamentary public accounts select committee published a damning report on the operation, which said, “Serco appears to have a bullying culture and management style which inhibited whistleblowers from being open in the patients’ interest.” It also said that Serco staff altered data on 252 occasions, which meant that the company was overstating its performance to the primary care trust.3 4

Serco admitted that it had experienced operational challenges but maintained that it was providing a high quality service. However, it said that delivering out-of-hours care did not fit with the company’s future healthcare strategy and that it had reached a mutual agreement with NHS Kernow, the clinical commissioner for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, to bring forward the end of its contract for GP out-of­-hours services to May 2015.

Louis Warren, Serco’s director of services in Cornwall, said, “For Kernow, this decision will enable a transition to a new model of integrated, unscheduled care earlier than if the contract period was unchanged, which will benefit the people of Cornwall in times of increased healthcare demand. For Serco, delivering out-of-hours care does not fit with our future healthcare strategy, which will concentrate on other areas of the market.”

He added, “As is well known, in the past Serco has experienced a number of operational challenges, and there has also been a significant increase in demand for the service. Where we have made mistakes we have learnt from them, and we will continue to learn from them. For some time now the contract has been providing a high quality service that meets all of the national quality requirements, and NHS Kernow recognises the improvements we have delivered in the last 12 months.”

Andrew Abbott, director of operations for NHS Kernow, said, “Serco is currently providing a good service and performing well against the national quality requirements. Feedback from patients is also very positive. However, we have been reviewing our whole urgent care system, and we believe there is an opportunity for a new way to deliver this service.”

Serco said that it had issued notice to end its loss making contract to manage Braintree Hospital because, since taking over operations in 2011, the predicted level of referrals of patients to the hospital had not materialised.

The company said that it would continue to provide community health services in Suffolk, the contract for which is due to run till October 2015. Serco said that it had managed to reduce the length of stay in the community hospitals by around a week and had improved access to the service. However, it admitted that the demand on the service had increased and that it is taking longer than anticipated to bring about productivity gains.

Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, told the Independent newspaper, “Serco has been desperate to build a presence in the healthcare market by undercutting [bids on] contracts at a cost to the taxpayer and a loss of service.” She added, “It’s pointless being good at getting contracts and then hopeless at delivering the services.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7549

References

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