The NHS in Scotland spent at least £38million on sending patients for private treatment last year, new figures show.
Thousands of patients have been referred to private hospitals in the past year to help meet Scottish Government waiting time targets or to access specialist care in conditions such as dementia, anorexia and autism.
The Scottish Government wants NHS chiefs to cut the money it spends in the private sector with Audit Scotland last year warning that the treatment route did not offer value for money when used to meet targets.
Lothian had the highest spend overall on private and independent care in 2015-16 at £9.32m, figures obtained through Freedom of Information show.
Spire Murrayfield Hospital, run by a company which has 38 private hospitals across the UK, received £5.23m from NHS Lothian over the year with 2,496 patients treated there during 2015-16.
Most were sent to see urology specialists, with orthopaedics and general surgery also among the most common reason for referrals.
The Edinburgh Clinic in Colinton received £3.56m from NHS Lothian in 2015-15 after 2,843 patients were referred, mainly for ophthalmology and treatment for hands.
While NHS Lothian showed the highest spend on private and independent healthcare in 2015-16, it also cut its bill by almost £2.4m on the year before when spending soared to £11.7m.
Meanwhile, four boards showed a rise in private sector spending including Tayside and Grampian, which both increased bills by around £1.15m to £7.8m in order to meet patient demand.
NHS Grampian, which sought private treatment in orthopaedics, general surgery and maxillofacial surgery, said it was “working hard” to cut its spending on private treatment used to help meet waiting times targets.
A spokeswoman said: “We are working hard to reduce our Treatment Time Guarantee referrals by investing in theatre capacity and staffing to meet future demand. The elective centre planned for Aberdeen Royal Infirmary has support and funding in place from the Scottish Government.”
Shetland also raised its bill by just over £100,000 to £410,054 in 2015-16 with Western Isles recording a total spend of £281,173 – up 6 per cent on the year before.
Overall, NHS Scotland spent £82.5m in the private sector, including service contracts, in 2014-15, according to Audit Scotland.
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Donald Cameron said: “While the SNP stokes up fears about the privatisation of the NHS south of the Border, the reality is health boards in Scotland are using the independent sector extensively.”
Information on private healthcare spending was not available from Greater Glasgow NHS or NHS Fife at this time.
Aileen Campbell, Minister for Public Health said:“Only in exceptional circimstances will patients be treated in the independent sector.
“Scotland’s NHS is seeing more patients than ever before, carrying out a record of over one million inpatient procedures last year – an increse of almost 18 per cent, or 162,000, under this government.”
Ms Campbell added that extra investment would increase capacity at Golden Jubilee National Hospital with a further £200m to create six new elective centres.
Spending in the independent sector represents less than 0.9 per cent of NHS Scotland’s frontline spending, the minister added.
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Donald Cameron said the figures showed the “immense contribution” the independent healthcare sector makes in Scotland.
He added: “In fact, under the SNP, the NHS wouldn’t be able to cope without it.
“And with health boards spending more than ever on bank and agency nurses, it’s obvious the SNP’s rhetoric on private healthcare is a nonsense.
“While it stokes up fears about the privatisation of the NHS south of the border, the reality is health boards in Scotland are using the independent sector extensively.”
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was unable to provide data within the limit of 20 working days and information from NHS Fife was not available at the time of press.