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Patient choice ‘tops out’ as NHS referrals to private providers flatline

GPs have been accused of stymieing patient choice after new figures revealed that the growth in NHS referrals to the private sector through the extended choice network has come to an end.

Department of Health figures show the number of patients being sent to private providers via Choose and Book has flatlined in 2011 after sharply rising in recent years.

Referrals to private-sector secondary care providers decreased in two consecutive quarters at the start of 2011 – after increasing for the previous 13 quarters stretching back to 2007.

According to the management consultancy Candesic, which obtained the figures under the Freedom of Information Act, the levelling off in referrals to the private sector may be down to GPs' lack of enthusiasm in promoting choice as well as a lack of impetus from PCTs.

Dr Victor Chua, partner and healthcare practice lead at Candesic, said: ‘A lot of PCTs have not put choice at the top of their agenda and I don't think GPs have been promoting it very much either. As a result, I think only quite clued-up patients even know if they have a choice.'

‘Every new thing plateaus off eventually, and it looks like at the moment choice is at the top of its adoption curve.'

‘What's surprising is the level it's topped out at is only £40m, 0.5% of the £80bn NHS acute budget. It's virtually nothing.'

He added: ‘I think the coalition has been less friendly to the private sector than has generally been thought to be the case.'

Dr John Grenville, secretary of Derbyshire LMC, said GPs struggled to prioritise choice in a 10-minute consultation.

He said: ‘If the local NHS hospital is good, people won't worry about choice,' he said. ‘When I get to the end of a consultation, I say you can go anywhere you like. What I don't do is run through every single hospital.'

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘Just because someone isn't going to an independent provider doesn't mean they aren't being given or exercising choice.'

‘Patients are likely to be given a choice of NHS providers too.'