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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008, 12:35 GMT
Choice expands to all hospitals
Surgeons
Patients are being given more choice over where they are treated
Patients having non-emergency treatment in England will be able to choose from any hospital in the country from April as the government extends NHS choice.

The policy began in January 2006 and now includes local hospitals, some private providers and elite units.

The changes will be advertised in newspapers and on radio, with individual hospitals also allowed to promote their services.

Patients' groups say most people just want a good local hospital.

This final push completes the phased expansion of the programme that has only had a luke-warm response.

And the expansion is also likely to be undermined by problems with choose and book, the online booking system for GPs.

Choice is heavily reliant on the system as it allows GPs to view appointment slots electronically.

In theory it sounds good, but in truth patients just want to go to their nearest hospital
Anthony Halperin, of the Patients Association

But it is currently only used for half of referrals as the implementation of the system has been delayed, leaving patients and doctors heavily reliant on phoning round hospitals.

However, ministers are still confident the extension of choice will benefit patients.

Health minister Ben Bradshaw said: "Choice is fundamental to the delivery of a personalized NHS.

"People would like to have more control and be more involved in the decisions about their illness and treatment.

"More choice will also help drive up quality and standards across the NHS."

However, research by the King's Fund suggested choice could worsen health inequalities as the most educated were more likely to shop around, while those from more deprived backgrounds just opted for their local hospital.

Cost

Patients are currently offered a choice of about five local hospitals and a range of independent sector treatments centres and private hospitals on an approved list that offer operations at NHS cost.

It's a great shame that we have come to the point where hospitals are expected to compete for business using advertising and sponsorship deals
Karen Jennings
Unison

Patients are also offered the option of going to foundation hospitals, a group of top-performing trusts.

Information about hospital services is available on the NHS Choices website.

Anthony Halperin, of the Patients Association, said: "In theory it sounds good, but in truth patients just want to go to their nearest hospital.

"They often do not have time or the inclination to compare hospitals and consultants and travel constraints mean if they wanted to it is not always possible."

Dr Jonathan Fielden, chairman of the BMA's Consultants Committee, said patients should have real choice about their treatment, but this was best done in consultation with their doctor.

"Whilst it is likely that most patients will choose their local hospital, because it is close to where they live and easier to get to, there is a risk that by opting for another provider some other local services would be cut back because of the loss of funding.

"This may mean, for example, that crucial emergency services would be threatened or that patients would need to travel further from their home than they do now for some conditions."

"I am also worried that it will be difficult for patients to make informed choices.

"We still have a long way to go in collecting and having access to accurate, reliable and meaningful data that enables patients, working with their doctors, to make full knowledgeable choices about their treatment."

Commenting on the new code allowing hospitals to promote their services, Karen Jennings, head of health at Unison, said: "It's a great shame that we have come to the point where hospitals are expected to compete for business using advertising and sponsorship deals.

"Hospitals need to concentrate on taking care of patients, not wasting time and precious money on their next campaign."

Private firms will also be encouraged to work with NHS hospitals on sponsorship deals under the plans.



SEE ALSO
Patient surgery choice extended
31 May 06 |  Health
Doctors assess patients' choice
01 Jan 06 |  Health
Is real NHS choice possible?
14 Nov 04 |  Health

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