Travel kilometres or go private: GPs compelled to offer NHS alternatives

Patients will be offered up to five healthcare providers when clinically appropriate

Patients will be encouraged to use the NHS app for private hospital bookings to cut waiting times. PA
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Doctors will now be compelled to offer patients awaiting hospital treatment the option to travel further for health care or go to private alternatives.

Patients will be offered up to five healthcare providers when clinically appropriate, allowing patients to select their preference using the National Health Service app or website.

Treatment locations will be filtered by distance, waiting times and the quality of care.

Patients already have a right to choose where they go, but it is hoped doctors being required to give alternatives, in a letter being sent by the NHS on Thursday, will lead to more such decisions.

As it stands, NHS patients can choose another hospital if they have to wait longer than the maximum 18 weeks for treatment, or two weeks for cancer care.

Yet only one in 10 patients exercise their right to choose, and only one in six patients were given a choice of treatment providers by their GPs.

Research by the Patients’ Association has shown that giving patients choice can cut up to three months off their waiting time by choosing a different hospital in the same region.

Staff nurses in a hospital ward. PA

The NHS will cover any private healthcare costs included in the plan.

Low-income patients could receive help with travel costs under an existing scheme.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has made cutting waiting lists one of his five priorities, has backed the private sector playing a greater role in the NHS.

As a record 7.3 million patients are awaiting treatment, Mr Sunak said empowering patients to have a “real choice” over where they receive treatment will help to cut waiting lists.

“Our aim is to create an NHS built around patients, where everyone has more control over the care they receive, wherever they live or whatever their health needs are,” he said.

As of October, patients who have waited more than 40 weeks for an appointment or have yet to be given a treatment date will be asked whether they want to switch hospitals, including one with a shorter wait, if possible and clinically appropriate.

This 40-week threshold could be reduced to 18 weeks if backlogs are dealt with effectively.

A busy hospital ward. Patients can now choose to go elsewhere if waiting lists are too long. PA

“This will not only give patients more control over their own care, but could also wipe months off their wait by finding a hospital or clinic with a shorter waiting list," said UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay.

Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients' Association, welcomed the campaign but said more support for general practice was needed to ensure it was effective.

“With the current pressures on general practice, it will be important they are supported to work in partnership with their patients to increase uptake of patient choice," Ms Power said.

The announcement comes as opposition leader Keir Starmer on Monday called for "serious, deep, long-term changes" to the NHS.

"The Conservative Party that has brought it to its knees will put it in the ground," Mr Starmer said.

Updated: May 25, 2023, 10:41 AM