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CAMHS won't see you now

These errors will distort patient choice

If you were to grab a Department of Health official and ask them to describe Government primary care policy in just a couple of words, the chances are they would plump for 'access' and 'choice'.

If you were to grab a Department of Health official and ask them to describe Government primary care policy in just a couple of words, the chances are they would plump for 'access' and 'choice'.



Both are loaded with symbolism far stronger than their literal meaning. The first represents an updating of the NHS for modern, 24-hour convenience culture and the second the transformation of patients from passive recipients of care into demanding and discerning customers. The two words are intimately linked in the minds of ministers, with the assumption that the choices patients make will frequently be driven by differences in ease of access.

All of this is drawn together on the NHS Choices website, which rather grandly aims to be a single portal for the health service - a medium for the exchange of information about services and an engine for choice. Soon, patients will be able to rate practices, view them in league table order and transfer between them in a few clicks of a mouse.

It all sounds fantastic, at least if you buy into the Government vision of healthcare consumerism and patient power. But there is a flaw. True choice, as ministers, think tanks and professional bodies now acknowledge, requires good-quality information. And some of the information on NHS Choices - and specifically the data on GP opening hours - is hopelessly wrong.

We know this because Pulse, as part of an exhaustive investigation into the provision of extended hours, rang 200 practices to ask them if they offered evening or weekend appointments. When we cross-checked the results against NHS Choices we found in 45% of cases the listings on extended hours were incorrect. A more detailed analysis of 10 practices found that in seven cases information on opening hours was riddled with errors. The potential consequences of this are serious. Patients have already started switching from GP practices to the first Darzi centre, presumably in part because of the longer hours it offers. How unjust it would be if practices lost patients on the basis of incorrect information.

It seems remarkable that the Government is rushing ahead with divisive innovations on NHS Choices - such as the self-selecting and potentially libellous rating and ranking of practices - when the fundamentals have not yet been mastered. This is an important site, which will ease patients' access to the NHS and provide a forum for GPs to advertise the range of services they offer. It gets an enormous amount of money spent on it.

It has a duty to get its information right.

Editorial

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