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Health minister blames GPs for failing to offer patients choice – and claims ‘many doctors take any excuse to keep appointments as short as possible’

A health minister has accused GPs of undermining the Government’s choice agenda by keeping appointments ‘as short as possible’ and taking the ‘easiest’ option of sending patients to ‘tried and familiar secondary providers’.

Speaking at a Westminster Health Forum event on the future of the NHS, Earl Howe said choice remained an important principle for patients, but there needed to be a ‘cultural change’ among clinicians.

The health minister told delegates that Choose and Book had not taken hold in the system, and blamed GPs for not pointing patients towards the scheme. He said that NHS England was looking at new ways of making providing choice ‘real’.

Earl Howe said at the event: ‘We are not doing enough to address the choice agenda. I think everyone believes in it – it is enshrined in the NHS Constitution. Patient choice is important. It is often said to me “not everyone wants choice”. And that is true. But we know that a lot of people value choice – it is one way of empowering patients.’

However, this was been undermined by clinicians, he warned. He said the choice agenda was ‘a cultural change’.

He added: ‘There are many doctors who take any excuse to keep the appointments with their patients as short as possible and to direct them to the tried and familiar secondary care provider because that is the easiest way to proceed.’

‘It is not doing the patients a favour and we will see in the information coming out of patient questionnaires the extent to which choice is being offered and that I hope will drive a push from NHS England and CCGs who have to demonstrate in the way that they operate that they are living by the letter and the spirit of the agenda.’

Earl Howe said that Choose and Book had not shown its full potential. He said: ‘We had things like Choose and Book for some years, but it has not taken sufficient hold in the system. There are many GPs who don’t point their patients to Choose and Book. We are actively addressing that at the moment, actively updating it, which we call the e-referrals system, so that it does provide a richer choice for patients at point of referral. We are also looking at other ways to prompt patients to be aware they have choice, to promote the NHS Constitution.’

NHS England is looking at ‘all sorts of mechanisms… to make the choice agenda real,’ Earl Howe added. ‘I think we will see some announcements coming out in the next few months.’

Last year, a wide-ranging DH initiative to force GPs to engage with the choice agenda outlined proposals to force practices to adopt ‘labour-intensive’ alternatives if they refuse to use Choose and Book. The electronic system for booking appointments is to be relaunched, based on the design of a flight booking website.