The government has committed itself to offer NHS patients a choice of four or five hospitals by the end of 2005 for non-emergency care.
The aim is to make the NHS more patient-friendly by giving the public control over their care.
What choice will patients get?
When patients are referred by their GPs for non-emergency care they will be given a choice of four or five
hospitals or other healthcare providers, such as allergy clinics and treatment centres.
It is envisaged one of these will be from the private sector.
Patients should also be able to book the time and date of their outpatient appointment online at the GP surgery.
The thinking behind the scheme is that patients want a more user-friendly NHS that fits around their needs.
How will patients make a choice?
Family doctors are expected to play a pivotal role - although the Royal College of GPs and various surveys have suggested they have not been properly consulted - in helping patients navigate their way around the NHS.
The new electronic booking system will be able to access what, where and when appointments are available.
Is this costing a lot of money?
Yes, but ministers believe it will be offset against some savings.
Offering choice and setting up the computer system is costing £196m. On top of that the annual running costs are £122m.
However, it is envisaged the right to choose will help save up to £100m through fewer missed appointments.
When is it happening?
The government has set itself a target of December 2005.
But the National Audit Office has warned the target may be missed as the government has not convinced GPs of the scheme's merits and the IT system to allow patients to book their hospital appointments is behind schedule.
By the end of 2004 just seven NHS trusts had systems in place to make choice possible.
How many patients will be affected?
Each year there are more than 240m GP / patient consultations, of which 9.4m result in referrals for hospital treatment.
It is these 9.4m referrals that will be given the option of hospitals.
Therefore, about one in 25 GP appointments will lead to patients being given a choice of hospital.
Are the other main parties offering choice too?
Yes both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are - but in different ways.
The Tories are promising patients a right to choose any hospital, including private hospitals if they can provide care at the same cost.
If a patient does want to go private they will be given funding worth half the cost of the NHS care.
The Lib Dems are also offering hospital choice, but only if it is cost effective. They want to expand the treatment options to include complementary medicine too.