NHS patients get wider choice of hospitals

NHS patients requiring hospital treatment will be able to have it anywhere in England and Wales under new plans outlined by the government today.

In an extension of the choice agenda, from today patients will be able to choose from any of the 35 foundation trust hospitals across the country for their non-urgent operations.

Over the next few months, the network of independent treatment centres (ICTs) will also be put on the list, to ensure patients are treated when and where is most convenient.

NHS patients needing planned hospital treatment have had the right to choose from a list of at least four providers since January, but health minister Andy Burnham insisted that in extending the system today, the government was “at last putting patients in control”.

The Department of Health (DoH) has also announced that from 2008, people requiring planned hospital treatment will be able to get it at any healthcare provider that meets the Healthcare Commission’s standards, and charges prices the NHS will pay.

“Society is changing, and so are people’s lifestyles. We commute more, live further from our families and work different hours. We want and expect convenient services that are tailored to the lives we live,” Mr Burnham said.

“We know that NHS staff want to provide services that meet people’s needs too, but until now have been hampered by a centrally run health system that hasn’t always let them put their patients first.

“We want to see patients increasingly having the right to choose where to go if they need treatment or care – nobody should have to accept a ‘get what you’re given’ culture.”

However, there are concerns about how people will properly exercise this new choice, and in particular that it will only apply to patients who can afford to travel elsewhere.

The DoH published a leaflet listing the different hospitals available for treatment in January, and is planning to add a supplementary document describing the foundation hospitals and ICTs which have been added to the list.

An information taskforce is also due to be set up shortly, led by the president of the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery, Professor Bruce Keogh, which will establish how patients can be provided with information comparing hospitals’ clinical performance.

But the Liberal Democrats remain sceptical about the choice agenda, saying it was a “high-risk strategy” that at a time of mounting NHS deficits would introduce “yet more volatility into the system”.

“Patients will welcome extra choice, but their top priority is quality healthcare close to home,” said health spokesman Steve Webb.

“If choice means more people shopping around for healthcare, what will be the future for less popular hospitals? Is the government prepared to see hospitals close as a consequence?”

He added: “How many ‘patient choice advisers’ will be needed to help patients deal with the complex new system, and how are cash-strapped NHS trusts meant to deal with the extra financial instability that will result from more shopping around by patients?”

In addition, there are concerns about the IT scheme used to book hospital appointments, choose and book. A survey yesterday revealed that a majority of GPs would like an independent review to ensure it works properly.