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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 April 2007, 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK
More choice for knee and hip ops
Surgeons
Each year 9.4m referrals for non-emergency treatment are made
People needing non-emergency orthopaedic treatment such as knee and hip replacements are to have a choice of going to any hospital in England.

Ministers are making the announcement - a year ahead of schedule - as part of their plan to give patients more control over their NHS care.

A new website giving information on hospital performance and treatments is also being set up.

But critics argue having a good local hospital is more important than choice.

Foundation hospitals

Patients needing elective hospital surgery were given a choice of at least four local hospitals at the start of 2006.

Patient choice is about people being in control
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt

A few months later that was extended to 15 independent sector treatment centres, private clinics which carry out minor ops for the NHS, and the 34 top-performing foundation hospitals.

By April next year that choice will be extended to any treatment.

Officials said orthopaedic operations were being brought forward to July to allow patients to "shop around" because waits for the speciality were among the longest in the NHS.

Waits for treatment are within the six-month target at the moment, but evidence suggests waits for diagnosis are long. The government is currently carrying out an audit.

But to date patients have remained luke-warm to the idea of choice. A poll of 2,000 patients by the British Medical Association found choice was ranked last in a list of priorities, behind cleanliness and A&E performance.

Patient survey

There have also been reports that not everyone is being given a choice over treatment.

The most recent National Patient Choice survey of 57,000 found 41% of patients referred to hospital could recall being offered a choice.

A spokesman for the British Medical Association said: "They are spending an awful lot of money on things like new websites when patients would rather the resources were used to make sure their local hospital was of a good standard, clean and offers the right quality of care."

But Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt defended the policy.

"We are determined to put patients at the heart of the NHS. Patient choice is about people being in control," she said.

"Patients needing a hospital appointment should have the right to pick and choose their time, date and place."

Pilot scheme

To help support patient choice, a new website will be up-and-running from the summer offering patients data on everything from waiting times and cleanliness to multi-media guides of the 40 most common procedures.

The idea is that patients will use the website before booking their hospital appointment.

There will also be 10 pilot schemes where librarians will be on hand to help patients navigate the website.

Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "Some of these initiatives smack of gimmickry. How can a librarian match the guidance given by a highly trained GP?"

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley agreed GPs were the best point of information.

He said the government was "simply trying to hide the fact" the computer system to book appointments was "running years behind schedule".

A spokeswoman for the Patients Association said: "Until the information offered is what patients need, is accurate and is not presented in jargon, this is yet another expensive exercise which patients are forced to fund."


SEE ALSO
Patient surgery choice extended
31 May 06 |  Health
Is real NHS choice possible?
14 Nov 04 |  Health

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