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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Inside the new health watchdog
The watchdog will inspect NHS and private clinics
A new NHS watchdog - the Healthcare Commission - started work on 1 April.

But what is it and what does it do? BBC News Online investigates.

The Healthcare Commission is the new name for the new all-singing, all-dancing health watchdog.

The name bestowed on it by politicians - the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection - was deemed too confusing by staff.

The new watchdog replaces the Commission for Health Improvement and the National Care Standards Commission.

It is responsible for inspecting NHS and private healthcare facilities.

The watchdog showed it meant business on its first day by announcing plans to take legal action against 33 plastic surgery clinics for failing to comply with the regulations.

What are its powers?
Inspect NHS, private and voluntary healthcare facilities
To publish reports and compile NHS star ratings
To carry out studies to see if the NHS is getting value for money
To investigate patient complaints against the NHS
Its inspectors will visit hospitals and clinics across England and Wales, publish reports and compile the annual NHS star ratings.

The watchdog will also carry out studies to ensure the health service is getting value for money in key areas - taking over some of the work currently done by the Audit Commission.

The Healthcare Commission hopes to be more patient and staff-orientated than some of its predecessors.

"We aim to focus on the issues of most concern to patients and those who work in health services," says Anna Walker, its chief executive.

To that end, it will have new powers to investigate patient complaints, where they feel unhappy with how their case has been dealt with at a local level.

The most significant aspect of the new watchdog is that it brings the inspection of NHS and private healthcare facilities under the one roof for the first time.

"It is the first time an organisation has been brought together which can put public, private sector and the voluntary sector all under one roof," says Sir Ian Kennedy, its chairman.

"The intention is to harmonise them, to bring them all together, so that wherever you're treated you can say I'm entitled to the same level and quality of care."

Broad support

The move has broad support. "There was a slightly idiotic thing in CHI whereby they had no control over the private healthcare market," says Niall Dickson, chief executive of the health think tank The King's Fund.

"They are bringing public and private health together under the same inspection regime, and I think that makes sense."

The Healthcare Commission will also be more independent of government than its predecessors. It will report to Parliament rather than ministers.

"It is very important that patients, professionals and the service generally see us as independent," says Sir Ian.

"I think the key to that is whether we say what we see and tell it as it is. We are determined to do that."

The watchdog will have to be seen to be independent of government if it is to be taken seriously be patients and staff.

"I think Sir Ian's job will be to keep it as independent as possible so that the credibility of what it says and its ability to review things like foundation hospitals really are seen to be effective," says Niall Dickson.

The establishment of the new watchdog has been seen as an opportunity to streamline the inspection process while driving up standards in both the NHS and private sectors.

"There is a major opportunity in this to simplify the inspection regime and focus on the essentials; value-for-money, driving up clinical standards across all healthcare sectors and ensuring quality information to support patient choice," says Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.

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