The UK’s health services are under more strain than ever before, as rising demand across the last decade, coupled with the impact of covid have led to the NHS struggling to keep up with the volume of patients. This has resulted in private healthcare providers and insurance companies growing to meet increasing patient demand.
During the pandemic the NHS was forced to halt routine procedures such as cataract surgeries and hip and knee replacements as their wards became overfilled with Covid-19 patients. For the duration of the pandemic, the private healthcare sector partnered with the NHS to provide continued care to the millions of individuals with Covid. They also could perform the routine treatments that thousands of individuals couldn’t receive from the NHS during that time.
In a YouGov poll commissioned by the Private Healthcare Information Network, it was found that as of March 2022, self-funded hip replacements had increased 165% from July-September 2019 compared to the same period in 2021, while self-funded knee replacements saw a 122% rise in the same period. Self-funded treatment is defined as healthcare treatment you receive privately that you pay for yourself, without the assistance of medical insurance. As of 2019, around one in four private treatments were self-funded.
With this huge increase in people choosing to pay for private treatment rather than sitting on extensive NHS waiting lists, we wanted to find out how private healthcare companies were performing from an SEO perspective after the pandemic. Will we see trends that indicate that private treatment is falling back to pre-pandemic levels, or will the search for privately funded treatment be more popular than ever?
The top five healthcare companies
When we examine the landscape of the private healthcare market, the top website domains that appear under searches for private healthcare are those of the top five popular private healthcare providers: HCA, Spire, BMI Healthcare, Ramsay, and Nuffield Health. To further investigate the impact of the pandemic on these companies’ online visibility, we’ll take a look at the change in their visibility across the last 3 years, from March 2020 to December 2022.
The following statistics show the organic desktop visibility of the website domains of each of our top five private healthcare competitors. Organic desktop visibility is the overall likelihood a website is seen in desktop organic search results. Comparison of the visibility of different domains can help us to determine which site is performing better and receiving more visitors.
|Top private healthcare companies||Mar 2020 searches||Dec 2022 searches||% Change|
|Circle Health Group||4502||5738||27%|
From the data, we can see that the website domain that performed best over the last two and a half years was Spire Healthcare, which saw a rise in organic visibility of 101%. Both HCA Healthcare and Nuffield Health also gained above 50% increase in visibility, while Ramsay lost less than 1%. Circle Health Group has seen a healthy growth in visibility considering there has been a recent rebranding with a new website and URL. Let’s take a dive into the data for each of the companies.
Nuffield Health is the country’s largest healthcare charity. The charity operates 31 hospitals and 114 fitness centres under its Nuffield Health brand. With the endorsement of many celebrities and renowned for their state-of-the-art fitness centres around the country, the brand name of Nuffield Health is extremely well-known, and could be many people’s first go-to brand when thinking about private healthcare providers.
Nuffield Health have achieved a strong growth percentage in visibility between March 2020 and December 2022, with a large spike in June 2020 that has maintained steadily since, which could be attributed to a number of factors.
The large spike in growth around June 2020 could be attributed to increased organic traffic – Nuffield Health supported the NHS with all 31 of their private hospitals during the pandemic, including making their onsite nurseries available for all NHS and key worker staff to help with childcare support. Therefore, many more people may have been searching for Nuffield Health facilities if their loved ones were admitted with Covid-19, or for more routine procedures that carried on throughout the pandemic, such as cancer care and urgent care.
There is also the potential that Nuffield Health was more visible due to the growing calls from MPs and ukactive’s Huw Edwards for indoor gyms to reopen as other sectors began to open up after the first initial lockdown. By 25th July 2020, indoor gyms had reopened in England, and many people flocked back to gyms, more so than before the pandemic began. This will have led to increased interest in Nuffield Health, and therefore searches will have increased significantly with the news that gyms were reopening.
This big push in online visibility may have been sustained for such a long period because they were able to dominate the private healthcare market – certainly no other private healthcare groups were able to attain the same level of organic visibility across 2021 and 2022. This dominance over the market could have contributed to the lesser growth of the other groups, in particular Ramsay Health Care.
Nuffield Health could maintain this increased visibility, or possible even improve it with stronger on-site SEO, including expansion of their blog and potentially SEO strategy to add their advice on different health topics to attract more organic traffic.
Ramsay Health Care
One of the world’s largest and most diverse healthcare companies, Ramsay Health Care was founded in 1964 in Australia and now operates 480 facilities in 11 countries. In addition to routine and complex surgery, day cases, diagnostic procedures, and physiotherapy, they also provide a wide range of specialized clinical services. Furthermore, the organization operates three specialized neurological rehabilitation residential centres, providing care for residents with complex neurological conditions.
Their visibility shows an unusual picture of growth during the pandemic, with larger spikes during the stricter lockdowns, and lulls during periods of relative freedom, with an overall small drop in organic visibility of -0.9% between March 2020 and December 2022.
The data is in line with those of the other well-established healthcare groups throughout the pandemic, with larger spikes during times of NHS incapacity due to rising Covid numbers, and a settling back to pre-pandemic levels by early to mid-2022. Ramsay were the group to show a drop in visibility, with their site visibility dropping by -0.9% from early 2020 to the end of 2022.
This stands them apart from their competitors, and since there were no large shifts in newsworthy content from the company, or a change in their branding, one of the reasons that their visibility may not have shifted is because they didn’t capitalise on any opportunities to improve their SEO during the periods of increased visibility and popularity. With long NHS waiting lists and increased strikes in the public health sector, Ramsay Healthcare UK could benefit from improving their online presence and SEO to challenge their competitors.
Spire Healthcare was formed in 2007 from the sale of several Bupa hospitals, and now operates nearly 40 private hospitals and 10 private clinics across the UK. At least 30% of Spire’s revenue in 2021 came from NHS contracts they took to help with the strain of the pandemic.
Spire’s visibility saw the largest increase across the top five healthcare providers, with an impressive 101% growth from March 2020 to December 2022. This growth did not remain steady across the course of the pandemic, but they saw an eventual recovery to a state of normality, as can be seen in our in-depth analysis below.
Almost as soon as the pandemic began, there was a large spike in interest in search terms for Spire Healthcare. This lasted until January 2021, when there was a sharp fall in interest that steadied out above pre-pandemic levels. This trended upwards until another fall in December 2021, which would begin to climb again around May/June of 2022.
Spire has a more even split of clinics and hospitals across the UK in comparison to HCA, which will have contributed greatly to the stronger growth in visibility. With locations across the UK, patients who would otherwise have used NHS facilities would have had easy access to Spire for private care, which will again have led to increased searches.
So, in contrast, while HCA hospitals are located in an area of dense population and an even denser population of international visitors and citizens, a lack of movement and travel due to pandemic restrictions will have impacted their visibility.
Although, it is also possible that spikes in visibility may have correlated with updates of government action following the incarceration of Dr Ian Paterson, a breast surgeon who worked at Spire facilities and has been jailed for 17 counts of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and three counts of unlawful wounding. Several inquiries are working to establish stricter medical practices and accountability for private healthcare providers because of his conviction.
Spire’s sustained spike at the end of 2022 is a positive sign for the healthcare provider, with strong evidence that this growth in visibility could remain sustainable with the correct online SEO strategy.
Circle Health Group
Circle Health Group is a new group that was formed after the takeover of BMI Healthcare by its parent company, Circle Health, in December 2019, with the official takeover occurring in 2022. Therefore, Circle Health Group has more unusual visibility scores than the other groups. Circle Health are the only group to have experienced a decrease in visibility since the beginning of the pandemic, which may namely be attributed to the changing of their domain name and branding. The visibility of the former BMI domain was showing steady growth, however, and this paints a more stable picture than the previous groups.
Looking at the previous domain data for Circle Health when it was BMI Healthcare, it’s clear to see that the online visibility of the company was steadily growing across 2020 and 2021, with minor peaks and dips along the way. This steady growth can mainly be attributed to the aforementioned spike in patients opting for self-funded treatment as opposed to joining increasingly expanding NHS waiting lists.
Spikes in visibility can also come from increased interest in the brand, which in this case could be due to the company being bought over and rebranded by a smaller firm.
When the domain changed over to Circle Health, we can see that the reach was significantly lower in comparison, which is to be expected when altering a company’s branding.
However, in order to improve their online visibility and push their URL’s higher up the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page), there would need to be a big push by Circle Health to improve their onsite SEO, using blogs and landing page copy to establish the changeover of the brand and reassert themselves as an authoritative voice in the private healthcare market.
HCA Healthcare is an American for-profit operator of healthcare facilities that was founded in 1968 and entered the UK private healthcare market in 1995 as HCA International. They have opened over 30 facilities across Manchester and London, with another facility in Birmingham opening in 2023. These facilities include some well-known sites, including The Harley Street Clinic and The Portland Hospital for Women and Children, where the Royal Family choose to give birth.
As one of the largest private healthcare providers in London, with a population of over 8.9 million people as of 2019, HCA International is one of the most popular private healthcare providers for British and international citizens. From the visibility data we have for HCA, we can see that their visibility has grown by 68% from March 2020 to December 2022, a growth that we can attribute to several factors throughout that period.
From the visibility chart, it’s clear that the largest spike came towards the end of 2020, as lockdown laws fluctuated and, as a whole, the public were more comfortable with attending hospitals to receive treatment. Common procedures like hip and knee replacements and cataract surgeries had been delayed due to the impact of the pandemic on the NHS, and with a reduced quality of life due to living with these conditions longer than necessary, many sought an alternative path to receive these treatments privately.
According to the same YouGov survey commissioned by PHIN, 12% of survey respondents have used private healthcare services since the pandemic began. 41% of these respondents said they would have preferred to have used NHS services for the same type of care they paid for privately, indicating that the lack of access to NHS services due to the pandemic did shift search volume towards private care.
With the easing of lockdown restrictions across 2021, it could explain why this upward trend in searches for HCA International fell across 2021, with a small upwards trend towards the end of that year. Many were able to receive the treatment they required on the NHS again as the force of the pandemic began to wane.
The upward trend at the end of 2021 continues into 2022 and could be attributed to the extensive waiting lists that remain a burden for many NHS sites. In the final months of 2021, there was a 39% rise in privately funded treatment compared to the previous year, although interestingly, the biggest rises were all outside of London, which may explain why the upward trend is not a drastic increase, but steadier in comparison to other providers.
For more insights into the impact of Covid-19 on different sectors in the UK, check out our blog. Our Sales and Marketing team are always happy to discuss further any opportunities that improved SEO visibility could play for your brand.
About the author
Catriona has been a Content Writer at connective3 for 10 months working across a range of clients. She has prior experience within the private healthcare and yachting industries working as a writer, journalist, and comms officer.
”Having worked in the private healthcare industry before and during the pandemic, I knew how much of an impact Covid-19 had had on the NHS and the knock-on effect this had on the private healthcare industry, particularly the larger private healthcare groups who operate most of the market in the UK. With a heightened knowledge of SEO and online performance I've gained from working at c3, I was curious to see how the industry as a whole was doing in terms of their SEO results – search volume and visibility are great indicators of how well a company or industry is performing.Catriona CherrieSenior Content Writer