The health service will extend the use of a “matching platform”, through which patients are “matched” with providers of the service they need outside their local area.
The NHS said the new platform aims to make the most of available capacity elsewhere – including in the private sector – and speed up waiting times.
The system was initially launched in January for patients needing hospital admission, but the platform will now be expanded to include cancer, diagnostic checks and outpatient appointments.
The health service estimates that thousands of people could benefit from the extension of the programme, saying that 1,700 have used the platform so far.
Asked about those who are unable to travel, an NHS representative said there was local funding and support in place to enable people who may struggle to travel – which could include elderly or disabled people – to benefit from the scheme. This could include provision of taxis or hotels.
NHS England said the platform allows healthcare staff to view and add available surgery slots in hospitals across the country, including private sector capacity.
A patient's details are uploaded on to the system, then other NHS and private hospitals or providers are able to log on and offer their services.
If more than one provider offers treatment, the patient can choose between them.
When a patient is first registered with the platform, they can say how far they would be willing to travel – for instance up to 160 kilometres.
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NHS England said that the system is mainly for patients who have been waiting the longest but patients do not need to be waiting a particular length of time or longer than average to be uploaded to the system.
It said that people in need of gynaecology, colorectal and trauma and orthopaedics services have benefited most from the use of the platform so far.
The health service has increased its use of private hospitals by a third since 2021 – from 65,000 appointments and procedures a week to more than 90,000 a week now.
“Despite significant pressure on services, NHS staff have already made incredible progress against our elective recovery plan, and this smart new tool will help us to continue to reduce long waits for patients,” NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said.
“It shows, once again, the benefits of having a national health service – NHS staff can now work even more closely with other hospitals across the country to identify capacity and conveniently match patients to available treatment and appointment slots.”
Patients Association chief executive Rachel Power said: “We welcome the expansion of the hospital matching platform and think it will make it even easier for patients and the healthcare professional to make a decision together about where to have treatment or a test.
“Patient choice has been a right for over decade but not all patients are aware they have the right, and it isn’t always offered to them. Hopefully, making it easy for health professionals to see the choices of where patients can be treated will increase the number of patients who can take advantage of mutual aid within the NHS.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “Anything that helps older people get speedier access to the diagnostics and treatment they often desperately need has to be a good thing, so this initiative is very welcome.
“We know that literally millions of older people are stuck on waiting lists at the moment, with no idea when they’ll get seen by a clinician.
“This new platform won’t be the solution for everyone, but it will enable some fortunate older people to take advantage of spare capacity in a health setting that’s not their usual one – great news for them and a good use of the NHS’s resources, too.”