The British government hails it as real patient choice – critics say it could have the opposite effect. From today people in England have the right to choose where they want to have non-urgent surgery from a list of at least four state-funded hospitals.
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt said: “This is a very big step forward for the NHS. It will affect about nine and a half million patients this year who have been referred for elective treatment.”
The government is expecting fewer delays because of red tape and fewer cancellations by patients. But the Liberal Democrat Health spokesman Steve Webb is not convinced. He said: “We’ve seen a record of money going into the NHS, so you have to ask the question : why are we asking patients to scour the country for quality treatment?”
The reform is due to be extended to NHS treatment at private hospitals by 2008.General practitioner Dr Philip Green is one of those who is not sure that everyone will be able to make an informed choice of where to receive treatment. “Some people will find it more easier to do that,” he said. “Other people – and I’m thinking of particular illness groups or age groups – will actually find it quite a trial to go chasing around, looking for different hospitals to choose from. Mostly I think they are going to be saying : Doctor, you choose for me.”
The government maintains that increased competition for patients will improve the quality of services. However, some experts are worried that unpopular hospitals could be forced to cut services or even close.