The Department of Health has launched a new consultation over whether patients should be given legal rights to maximum waiting times and health checks on the National Health Service.

In The NHS Constitution: A consultation on new patient rights, the government is proposing to give patients the legal right to receive treatment with a hospital consultant within 18 weeks of being referred by a GP and to be seen by a cancer specialist within a two-week timeframe.

If the NHS fails to do so, then it will be legally required to “take all reasonable steps to find a range of alternative providers that can”, including the provision of private care at NHS prices, it said.

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown explained: “Every single person who has to go into hospital or go through the difficulty of cancer will have clear rights and real power guaranteeing them quick access to care, or the offer of going private or to another NHS provider if these standards are not met”.

The government’s 18-week target was met ahead of schedule last year and is widely regarded as one of its greatest successes in reforming the health service, and it is hoped that the proposed new laws will help to embed this achievement into NHS culture and promote further improvements, to ensure that the days of 18 month-waits for treatment are but a distant memory.

“Waiting times are the shortest they have ever been but I want to build on this and give patients a legal right to maximum waiting times,” said Health Secretary Andy Burnham, and added that “turning targets into legal rights will empower patients and guarantee them the same high standards of care, regardless of where they live”.

Commenting on the announcement Nigel Edwards, policy director at the NHS Confederation, said: “It is a major departure for a government in this country to guarantee what patients can expect through legislation”, and that “enshrining a minimum waiting time as a legal right will provide additional reassurance for patients”.

However, he cautioned that, “as with all new policies, it is vital to be wary of any unintended consequences – particularly around how meeting the target might affect other local health priorities for primary care trusts – once it is put in place.”

And according to Tim Winn, Partner in the healthcare team at law firm Mills & Reeve, the proposals, which are basically saying to NHS providers “hit your referral-to-treatment targets or you will lose business,” will “ratchet up the pressure that already exists with patient choice,” as “patients will use waiting times to assess where they want to be treated [and] now they will be able to change horses in mid-stream”.

The British Medical Association is also critical of the move. Dr Mark Porter, Chairman of its Consultants Committee, conceded that the NHS has made “huge progress” in trimming excessive waiting times, but said “many doctors remain frustrated by examples of political targets being prioritised over the needs of individual patients. If one group of patients gains a legal right by virtue of how long they have waited, there is a risk that others with more serious conditions will wait longer”.

Health Check for prevention
The proposals also seek to give patients aged 40-74 years the right to an NHS Health Check every five years to assess their risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease, in order to facilitate earlier diagnosis and thereby reduce the incidence of such illnesses, carving out a more preventative path for the health service.

Joe Korner, Director of Communications for The Stroke Association, is seemingly firmly behind the move. “We could save up to forty thousand people from having a stroke every year if we could make sure that their blood pressure and other risk factors for stroke were kept under control. That is why The Stroke Association believes these NHS Health Checks are so important,” he explained.

The consultation also asking for opinion on legalising other aspects of health care in future, including the right to: choose to die at home; personal health budgets; choose a GP practice offering extended access; and key diagnostic tests for suspected cancer patients within one week of GP referral.