It seems that one of the government’s key health targets of improving patient choice is starting to lose momentum, the latest results of a series of surveys by Ipos Mori, commissioned by the Department of Health, suggest.

Findings of the May survey, based on 75,000 responses, indicate that, while the number of patients aware of their right to choose out of four hospitals for their first outpatient appointment continues to climb, those actually being offered a choice has taken a downturn.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents reported being aware before they saw their GP that they could choose which hospital to visit for their first appointment, marking a rise of 1% from March and 9% from the first results back in May/June 2006.

But, for the first time in the survey series, a slowdown in the percentage of patients who recalled being offered a choice of hospital was recorded: 44% in May, down from 48% in March, but up from 30% in the first (May/June 2006) survey. And if provisional results from the July survey are anything to go by, this trend looks set to continue, as the number being offered this choice has slipped again, to 43%.

Furthermore, in 15 out of 152 primary care trusts, over 60% of patients were offered choice, a significant drop compared to the March survey, when 29 PCTs hit this benchmark, which raises the question if patient choice is slithering down PCTs’ priority lists.

Disappointing result

"The figures in this survey make for disappointing reading,” said Graham Kendall, acting general manager of the NHS Partners Network. "Giving patients the right to choose where they are treated is a very powerful method of driving improvement across the system on the issues that matter to patients – from cleanliness and customer care to car parking. It is therefore worrying that this message is not getting through.”

To turn the situation around and “deliver the benefits of choice throughout the system, clear direction from the top is needed,” he said, adding: “We need to see a commitment from Ministers to ensure the patients' right to choose their provider is honoured. This is fundamental to personalised care and a reinvigorated choice agenda will drive wider improvement for all NHS patients."

On the flip side, the survey found that the majority of patients (79%) offered choice said they were satisfied with the process, with 71% citing the primary reason for their particular choice of hospital as location and ease of access. Other popular factors were waiting times (22%), hospital reputation (22%), cleanliness (22%) and quality of care (17%).