Thousands of National Health Service patients will now be handed a figurative pot of cash from which they can purchase their own treatments to improve health, as personal health budgets are rolled out across the country.

The government says it has set aside £1.5 million for the launch of personal health budgets so that, by April 2014, up to 56,000 people receiving 'NHS Continuing Healthcare' will have the right to ask for access to one.

But it is also hoped that the incoming clinical commissioning groups will also offer a personal health budget to other patients with a long term condition who may benefit, the government said.

The launch of the scheme follows a successful three-year pilot programme which, according to an independent evaluation, showed that giving patients personal healthcare budgets helped improve their quality of life. 

It also concluded that a potential £90 million could be saved if just half of patients eligible for NHS Continuing Healthcare sign up to the programme. 

Julie Stansfield, chief executive of charity In Control, said that through working with NHS staff across the country to promote and develop self directed support and personal budgets she has witnessed "what a positive difference this has made to their lives," and also welcomed plans "to expand the use of personal health budgets, regardless of the condition and logically, dependent on the level of need".

No 'silver bullet'

Mike Farrar, NHS Confederation, was more cautious in his response to the move, noting that while personal health budgets "can deliver real benefits for patients," they should not be seen as a "silver bullet". 

“Some fundamental questions remain about how we sustain existing services if patients decide to use their budgets elsewhere, and whether NHS funds should be used for non evidence based treatments," he stressed.

Elsewhere, the Royal College of Nursing expressed concern that providing these budgets "may exacerbate inequalities by giving the best care to those able to argue for it, while placing vulnerable people at risk".

“The priority for the NHS should be to provide the care that is needed to all its patients, and the move to personal health budgets could prove a costly distraction from that important aim,” said RCN chief executive Peter Carter .

Julia Manning, chief executive of 2020Health, also spoke of a "major challenge" in equality of access, because "some commissioners may be reluctant to advertise the offer of PHBs, so to avoid what has been expressed as ‘a huge effort on behalf of few beneficiaries".

"We would like to know how the government is going to ensure equality of access for all those eligible for PHBs, with a clear understanding of the patient’s rights for redress if they are denied one,” she said.