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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
NHS staff 'back patient choice'
Man in hospital bed
Patients will have a choice over where they are treated
NHS staff have given a cautious thumbs up to Labour and Conservative plans to give patients more choice over where they are treated.

Doctors welcomed the move but said patients must be offered "real" choice and not just the option of travelling hundreds of miles for treatment.

Managers said the policy should apply to all patients, not just those who are waiting for hospital care.

Both parties are pledging to give patients more choice over their care.

The Conservatives are outlining their proposals on Wednesday, while Labour is expected to announce its plans on Thursday.

Health is expected to be a key battleground in the next general election, which could be less than a year away.

More choice

Dr Richard Lewis, a senior member of the British Medical Association in Wales, said staff backed the idea of giving patients more choice.

"Doctors and managers in the health service are all for patients choice," he said.

The choice between the parties
Labour is promising patients a choice between four or five hospitals by 2006
Conservatives are promising patients the choice of any hospital, including those private hospitals which match the cost of NHS operations.
"However, patient choice has to be real patient choice not the choice of not having your operation or treatment in a local hospital and going half way across the country for it."

Others warned the parties that they would need to spell out clearly what they mean by giving patients more choice.

"All patients should in an ideal world have the opportunity to have their treatment wherever they would like to have it at the time they would like to have it," said Mark Sibbering, a consultant surgeon at Derbyshire Royal Infirmary.

"Having the capacity in the health service at the present time to do that is actually quite difficult."

Dr Terry Morris, medical director at the Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil, backed that view.

"It may not be possible for patients to have all the services they want in the place they want," he said.

"There are issues around what services can be provided where."

Mr James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association, added: "Choice implies spare capacity and we are still woefully short of the doctors, nurses and health professionals we need to run a high quality 21st century health service."

The NHS Confederation, which represents health service management, said all patients should be able to choose where they are treated.

"It is vital the choice debate does not become exclusively pre-occupied with hospital care," said Gill Morgan, its chief executive.

The Royal College of Nursing said the emphasis should be on improving local NHS services.

"What patients really want is quality patient care close to home, not to have to travel around the UK to gain access to what should be available on their doorstep," said Beverly Malone, its general secretary.

Extra money

Private health insurers warned that both parties' policies would require extra money.

"The fact that the two main political parties are putting consumer choice at the heart of healthcare is to be warmly welcomed," said Mike Hall, chief executive of Standard Life Healthcare and chairman of the Association of British Insurance Private Medical Insurance Committee.

It is vital the choice debate does not become exclusively pre-occupied with hospital care
Gill Morgan,
NHS Confederation
"But extra choice will require extra cash, particularly to increase capacity. The parties must look again at the future of healthcare funding if their plans are to become reality."

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the health think tank The Kings Fund, said plans to give patients more choice would have to be well thought out.

"The key point we have to get right is that we don't set up a system which means people who find it difficult to make those choices or who don't understand the system. are disadvantaged.

"In other words, the middle class find their way through it but the poor are somehow kept at their local hospital which isn't very good."

The trade union Amicus, which represents 80,000 NHS staff, criticised the Tory proposals to give patients money towards operations if they chose to be treated in the private sector.

"The notion that taxpayers should cover the cost of health care for those already wealthy enough to afford up front private health care is absolutely absurd," said Gail Cartmail, its head of health.

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