In January this year, 43% of patients in England were aware, before they visited their general practitioner (GP), that they had a choice of hospitals for their first appointment, compared with 41% last November and just 29% in May-June 2007, according to new figures from the Department of Health (DoH).

Also in January, 46% of patients in England told the survey that they recalled being offered a choice of hospital for their first outpatient appointment, up from 44% last November but down from 48% in March 2007. Hospital cleanliness and low infection rates were selected most often (by 76% of patients) as an important factor when choosing a hospital, it adds.

These are among the final results of around 72,000 responses to the eleventh National Patient Choice Survey (NPCS), commissioned from research company Ipsos MORI by the DoH to assess implementation of patient choice at Primary Care Trust (PCT) level. Since January 2006, all eligible patients referred by their GP for elective care should have been offered “clinically appropriate” choices from a list of four or more providers commissioned by their PCT, the Department notes.

The results of the latest study also show that, in January, 63% of patients who were aware that they had a choice of hospital recalled being offered such a choice, while 34% of those who were not aware of choice recalled being offered it, compared with 61% and 32%, respectively, last November.

67% of patients were able to go to the hospital they wanted in January, compared with 65% in November 2007, and 80% said they were satisfied with how long they had to wait from the time their GP referred them to when they saw the hospital.

The DoH has also released provisional headline findings of the latest NPCS, which was conducted in March, and these are that: - 47% of patients in England in March recalled being offered a choice of hospital for their first outpatient appointment, compared with 46% in the January survey; - 43% of patients were aware before they visited their GP that they had a choice of hospitals for their first appointment, up from 42% in January; and – 68% of patients were able to go to the hospital they wanted, with a further 22% having no preference and 7% being unable to go where they wanted. No preference was expressed by 23% of patients in January and 25% last November, and 7% were again unable to go where they wanted in both of those two months.