By Emma Wilkinson
Primary care trusts are redirecting patients away from their chosen hospital to underused independent sector treatment centres in order to save money and cut waiting times.
GPs are reporting their referrals are increasingly being switched to the privately run centres, even if even if the local hospital is nearer.
Patients are also being taken off hospital waiting lists and switched to the centres without GPs being consulted.
The actions are yet another blow to the Government's drive to give patients more choice.
Pulse revealed last month (10 August) that waiting list targets meant patients were being denied appointments at popular hospitals that could not offer appointments within 13 weeks.
GPs said they were also coming under increasing pressure to refer patients to ISTCs but were reluctant as they couldn't guarantee the quality of the doctors or service.
Dr Hamish Meldrum, GPC chair, said the 'whole issue of patient choice has been almost totally hijacked'.
He added: 'In Buckinghamshire, patients have been told that if they need their knee joints arthroscoped they have to go to a private provider in Milton Keynes. If they need their knee replaced after that, they have to go to a private provider in Reading. This doesn't fit with patient choice.'
Research by the magazine HSJ has found independent sector treatment centres have only carried out 59 per cent of the operations the NHS has paid them for under their contracts.
Dr Paul Roblin, chair of Thames Valley LMCs, said 'obligatory' use of the centres conflicted with patient choice.
He said: 'It's yet another example of incompatible government strategies.'
A Department of Health spokesperson denied the policy went against choice, as long as patients agreed to switch. GPs should not be pressured to refer patients to ISTCs, he added.