From April 1, patients in England will be able to cherry pick any National Health Service hospital in the country for treatment, under the government’s drive to improve choice and thereby give patients more control over their healthcare.

Since 2006 patients have been able to choose from a list of hospitals across England, but this has now been extended to include any NHS provider in the country. The government hopes that the move will help boost provider understanding of the needs and wants of patients and GPs, and that giving patients the power of choice will help them take greater responsibility for their care and have a better experience of it.

“Choice is fundamental to the delivery of a personalised NHS,” said Minister for Health Services Ben Bradshaw. People want to be more involved in making decisions about their illness and treatment, he said, and added that “more choice will also help drive up quality and standards” across the Service.

David Worskett, Director of the NHS Partners Network, was equally positive about the move: “This is excellent news for the NHS as a whole and more importantly it is especially good news for patients. It is now vital that patients are encouraged wherever possible to take advantage of the choice that is available”.

But the British Medical Association warned that, while patients deserve choice when making decisions about their treatment, exercising that choice “may destabilise existing services”.

“Whilst it is likely that most patients will choose their local hospital…there is a risk that by opting for another provider some other local services would be cut back because of the loss of funding,” said Jonathan Fielden, Chairman of the BMA’s Consultants Committee. “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,” he explained.

He also voiced concern over how difficult it will be 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,” he said.

Promoting services
In order to help patients make more informed choices, and as part of a broader initiative to raise awareness of choice, trusts and organisations providing NHS healthcare will now be able to advertise their services to patients for the first time. In addition, the Department of Health says it will be running a series of advertisements in regional newspapers and radio.

All advertising and promotional activity will be regulated by a strict set of new guidelines, The Code of Practice for Promotion of NHS Services, which highlights existing advertising codes as well as some NHS specific rules and will be enforced by primary care trusts and strategic health authorities.

Although Fielden agrees that patients and doctors should have access to the best information to help them make decisions on treatment, he warns that there is “a major risk, as we see in other countries, that opening the floodgates to advertising may dilute the availability of accurate information rather than increase it”.

Furthermore, he stressed that the Association is “most concerned that this will divert desperately needed funds from patient care into the coffers of advertising agencies,” insisting that “quality care should speak for itself, not be distorted by glamorous pictures and spin to meet the needs of an unhelpful extension of the market in health.”