Page last updated at 15:25 GMT, Monday, 29 June 2009 16:25 UK

Health pledges underwhelm doctors

Cancer diagnosis
Cutting times for cancer care has been a priority

Plans to give patients in England new rights to NHS treatment have failed to impress doctors' leaders.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in the Commons that patients would get "enforceable entitlements to prompt treatment and high standards of care".

This would include a guarantee of seeing a cancer specialist within two weeks.

However, Dr Hamish Meldrum, of the British Medical Association, said the measures would have little impact.

I can't see this will make any difference
Dr Hamish Meldrum
British Medical Association

The aim of the latest proposals is to replace central targets imposed on health managers with a set of fundamental rights for individual patients.

Other measures announced by Mr Brown included a guaranteed health check up for everybody over the age of 40, and a maximum wait of 18 weeks for the start of hospital treatment.

Mr Brown also said proposals would be unveiled later this year for a raft of measures, including:

• Placing a greater emphasis on prevention of illness and disease, and on early intervention

• An extension of the ability of patients to access treatment at a time and place that suits them

• Reform of maternity services

• Reform of the way health and social care services work together

BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said the prime minister "rather than leading, simply seemed to be cliniging to power".

"I can't see this will make any difference," he said.

"There really is not that much difference between a target, a pledge or a gurantee to me."

On the promise on cancer care, he added: "A two week wait is not really the issue.

"I think joined up care, investigations and getting to see the right specialists is more important.

"We are not political so we are not calling for an election, but I think there is a feeling that certainly the public has lost confidence in all politicians and an election might address some of that."

Tom Sandford, of the Royal College of Nursing, said cancer patients would be reassured that they would be seen within two weeks.

But he said the overwhelming majority already were, and it would be better value for money to support the NHS to see additional patients, rather than turn to the private sector.

He said: "Whether it's called a standard, target, objective or entitlement, what matters is that clinical decisions drive patient care."

Raised expectations

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the independent think tank the King's Fund said: "The idea that patients should have a right to certain standards of treatment is a good one and the government should be congratulated on reducing the number of central targets, some of which were hard to justify.

'However, we do need to be clear that many of the 'rights' set out in the Prime Minister's announcement are currently 'must do's' for the NHS.

"For example, the four hour maximum wait in accident and emergency, the 18 week wait for hospital treatment and health checks for 40 year olds are all already in operation."

Mr Dickson said the plans also suggested that the government would have to strength the new NHS Constitution, which was only launched a few months ago.

"The other concern must be that the new rights raise expectations among patients that the NHS may find hard to deliver," he said.

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