Private providers accounted for 345,200, or 4.3%, of all non-emergency NHS admissions that included a procedure in 2011/12, according to the latest Hospital Episodes Statistics Admitted Patient Care statistics. This amounted to 32,900 procedures more than last year.
The proportion of outsourced procedures varied across regions, with Southampton City Primary Care Trust (PCT) commissioning 30.3% of elective procedures from private providers. The 10 PCTs that commissioned the lowest number of private procedures were all located in London.
The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which collated the data, said that some of the increase would have been due to the inclusion of new private providers within the analysis. However, providers that had supplied the centre with data both this year and last year accounted for the bulk of the increase, it said.
Common outsourced procedures included endoscopy of the upper gastrointestinal tract, prosthesis of lens relating to cataract surgery and endoscopic cartilage operations on knee joints.
Healthcare law expert Barry Francis of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the trend was both "very sensible" and "good news for patients".
"The figures suggest that as demand for surgery has increased, the resources of the NHS and of the independent sector have been able to respond to patient choice and, presumably, to shorten waiting times," he said. "The services are provided under standardised and regulated contracts and are subject to the same quality regime."
"Hospital Episode Statistics have the potential to offer an incredibly rich and detailed picture of the activity happening within secondary care in this country," said Tim Straughan, HSCIC chief executive. "The figures also provide an insight into the relationship between the NHS and the private sector, in terms of the volume and type of work dealt with by private providers on behalf of the health service."
The data showed that NHS hospital activity continued to grow, with admissions passing 15 million in England over the past year, he said.
A report by corporate finance consultancy Catalyst, published in September, indicated that opportunities for private healthcare companies to provide services to the NHS couple be worth up to £20 billion over the next few years due to increasing pressure on public finances and an emphasis on opening up the health service. While private sector delivery of primary and secondary care services was in its "earliest stages", according to the report, delivery by the private sector could increase by up to 40% by 2020.
Private companies including Circle, Virgin Care and Serco have between them won contracts worth over £700 million this year, Catalyst said.