The National Health Service may be subjected to an OFSTED-style rating system in order to help paint a better national picture in terms of the safety and quality of care.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said this week that he has ordered a review into the advantages of implementing a similar rating system for hospitals and care homes as is currently used to gage the performance of schools.

The review, he said, will investigate how a new ratings system could help tackle the "crisis in standard of care" blighting parts of the health and social care environment.

In particular, it will look at how information about services can be best communicated to the public and how this could be used to lift standards.

Highlighting the most extreme cases, such as that at the Stafford Hospital and Winterbourne View care home, Hunt spoke of "the normalisation of cruelty, where the unacceptable is legitimised and the callous becomes mundane".

"Dignity, respect, and a constant, relentless drive for improvement in standards of care must be paramount," he stressed, noting that "greater transparency about how institutions perform is essential to that ".

As such, the Department of Health is planning to roll out a "friends and family" test next year, which will ask patients if they would recommend the care they received to a friend or family member as a first step to achieving a clearer picture of standards.

But this, Hunt says, does not go far enough. "As an MP I know how well each school in my constituency is doing thanks to independent and thorough OFSTED inspections. But because the Care Quality Commission (CQC) only measures whether minimum standards have been reached, I do not know the same about hospitals and care homes," he said, explaining his decision.

No 'star rating'

“I am not advocating a return to the old ‘star ratings’ – but the principle that there should be an easy to understand, independent and expert assessment of how well somewhere is doing relative to its peers must be right," he said.

Jennifer Dixon, Director of the Nuffield Trust, will lead the review, which must make it recommendations by March next year.

The news comes less than a week after the CQC published its State of Care report 2012, which found that 25% of NHS hospitals were failing to meet at least one of its key standards.