The government is using a "natural break" in the passage of the Health Bill to take stock of opinion on its plans for reform of the National Health Service.
Launching a "listening exercise on NHS modernisation", Prime Minister David Cameron said that over the next few weeks feedback on its plans would be collected from the public and the healthcare profession, with a particular focus on aspects such as the role of choice and competition for improving quality and how to ensure public accountability and patient involvement in the new system.
In line with this, health secretary Andrew Lansley also announced the creation of a new group of patient representatives, doctors and nurses - called the NHS Future Forum - tasked with listening to opinions on the ground and channelling findings back to government.
Defending the reforms, which include handing over commissioning powers to GPs and abolishing Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said the plans are based on "some simple common sense ideas – less bureaucracy, more power to local communities and more responsibility to those who know most about their patients".
However, in response to growing criticism of the reforms and the basis of their implementation, he conceded there are concerns that need addressing and that "some people have come forward with good proposals" that could actually improve the propsals.
According to prime minister David Cameron, the listening exercise is "a genuine chance to make a difference", and he promised that good suggestions would be used to improve proposed health legislation.
"But let me be clear, it is only through modernisation that can we protect the NHS and ensure the country has a truly world-class health service," he stressed, highlighting the point that changes will have to be made in order to drive the service forward at a time of increasing demand and budget constraints.
Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of Council at the British Medical Association, a strong opponent of many of the threads of NHS reform, welcomed the government's commitment to listening.
“How serious [the government] is about making real changes remains to be seen, but we welcome the acknowledgement that NHS staff and many others in the healthcare world have genuine concerns,' he said.
While the BMA supports the objectives of improving services and empowering staff, it believes the Bill as it stands "is taking the NHS in England in the wrong direction", particularly with regard to a statutory duty to promote competition throughout the health service.
The best way forward?
Nigel Edwards, acting chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said members support the government’s objectives on empowering patients and involving clinicians more closely in decision-making, but also question whether the proposed reforms are the best way forward.
Members are concerned about the pace and detail of the reform package, and feel more attention needs to be given to the way competition works in the NHS and how GP consortia will be accountable in future, he said.