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Choices Set to Rise for Patients in England

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From April 2012, NHS patients in England will have more choice about where they can go for treatment.

In effect, this means that once a patient has been referred from the relevant first port of call – in most instances this will be their GP – they will be able to make a choice about where they will be treated, and by whom.  Providers will have to be qualified, registered and licensed to provide their particular service, and will have to have agreed to accept current NHS fees.  The choices open to patients will include the NHS, independent sector, third-party and voluntary organisations.

This new plan, although it is due to be phased in more slowly than was previously thought, will apply to services such as community and mental health, podiatry, leg ulcer and wound healing, back and neck pain, adult hearing, continence, wheelchairs for children, speech therapy and diagnostic tests.

Currently only patients who need non-urgent treatment such as hip replacements and cataract operations are eligible for this freedom of choice.

Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley has tried to quell the doubt that currently exists over these services – “a mistaken idea that competition is there for the sake of it, or to increase the independent sector’s role in the NHS.”

But what it is really about, he said, is “children getting wheelchairs more quickly. It’s about people with mental health conditions choosing to receive their care somewhere closer to home. It’s about older people being able to choose a service that will come to their home – perhaps the vital difference between staying at home or having to move into care.”

Hamish Meldrum, chairman of council at the British Medical Association, has expressed warnings over the proposed plans, saying “What we would question is the assumption that increasing competition necessarily means improved choice. When competition results in market failure in the NHS, the ultimate consequence is the closure of services and the restriction of choice for the patients who would have wished to use them.”

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