NHS trust chief accuses Edinburgh professor of speaking out of turn

University defends outspoken scholar's right to ask awkward questions. Melanie Newman reports

July 9, 2009

A university has leapt to the defence of a public health professor over suggestions that she acted outside her professional remit by querying a National Health Service contract with a private healthcare provider.

Gerry Marr, NHS Tayside's chief operating officer, is seeking clarification from the University of Edinburgh on whether Allyson Pollock, director of the Centre for International Public Health Policy, was acting in a professional capacity when she criticised a contract between the health authority and a subsidiary of Netcare, a South African private healthcare provider.

In response, the university has stood up for Professor Pollock's right to ask awkward questions, reaffirming its commitment to the tenets of academic freedom.

The episode began with a paper published in the British Medical Journal in May. In it, Professor Pollock says there is no evidence that the contract, under which some NHS Tayside patients were "outsourced" to the Netcare-run Scottish Regional Treatment Centre for surgery, provided good value for money.

The paper points out that data on the contracts were difficult to obtain, but adds that figures from NHS National Services Scotland, which compiles health statistics, indicate that the centre may have been paid up to £3 million for patients who did not receive treatment.

In a letter published by the BMJ, Mr Marr says that Professor Pollock's analysis is "inaccurate and misleading", and that she had made "no attempt to understand" the work done at the centre, although he did not deny the £3 million claim outright.

Professor Pollock replied to his letter, stating that NHS Tayside still had not provided the data she had requested, including the sum paid by the NHS for patients who were not treated.

On 19 June, Mr Marr told the health authority's audit committee that he was seeking a retraction of the £3 million claim, and distributed a copy of a letter from Professor Pollock seeking details of the contract, which was printed on University of Edinburgh headed paper.

He added that he planned to ask Edinburgh whether the professor was corresponding as an individual or on behalf of the university.

A spokeswoman for NHS Tayside told Times Higher Education: "Given the (BMJ) article is so fundamentally flawed, we need to be clear on whether Professor Pollock is using this as research or offering a personal view on the commercial contract."

She added: "The figures quoted in the BMJ report are inaccurate."

Edinburgh said that it would respond to any correspondence from Mr Marr, but added that it "supports the right to academic freedom and to freedom of speech, and believes it is appropriate for academics to make contributions to public policy debate relating to their own areas of expertise".

Professor Pollock said she had produced "an academic paper based on all available data".

"The research took three years to complete and was done in the public interest," she said. "NHS Tayside has still not provided any data or analysis to support its claims."

In the 1990s, Professor Pollock was heavily criticised by MPs for condemning the Government's Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

She argued that capital investment through PFI created a large public-sector liability and published research showing that mechanisms for testing contracts' value for money were flawed.

She was singled out by a Health Select Committee report in 2002, which says: "Professor Pollock's assertion that 'there is a new pact with big business that is not operating... in favour of the population' was so extreme as to undermine confidence in (her) analysis and conclusions."

However, earlier this year, Tony Delamothe, deputy editor of the BMJ, said that "the current unravelling of PFI, with the Government bailing out projects in trouble, makes her analysis look prescient", adding that "we should at least take notice" of her latest report.

As well as tackling NHS Tayside over the Netcare contract, Professor Pollock is championing the cause of the residents of Kinloch Rannoch, a remote Scottish village in Perthshire.

NHS Tayside allowed the region's GP to drop out-of-hours care two years ago, and now wants to train volunteers as "first responders" to deal with medical emergencies.

Professor Pollock said that this ran contrary to the concept of the NHS, which "was founded to ensure that there was equal access to all and that small communities were provided for".

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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