Patients will be able to choose from up to five different providers through the NHS app when they are referred by a GP for treatment, the Government has announced.
Giving more options of where patients can go for treatment, including NHS care provided in the independent sector, could cut up to three months off waiting times, the announcement said.
However the BMA’s GP Committee for England said the plan did not acknowledge the impact it would have on GP workload.
Information for healthcare providers – filtered by distance, waiting times and quality of care – will be available to patients after they have spoken to their GP and they can choose which option they prefer through the NHS App or website.
Currently figures suggest only one in ten patients exercise their right to choose which the Government said it wanted to change by providing more information for patients.
Newly updated software to IT systems will make the process easier for GPs when referring patients for treatment, a statement said.
From October, patients already waiting more than 40 weeks for an appointment, and patients that have a decision to treat but have not yet been given a treatment date, will also be asked whether they want to switch hospitals, if possible and clinically appropriate.
In April, the Government commissioned Hewitt review said patients should have greater access to their NHS record, including checking their position on waiting lists and removing themselves, a Government review has suggested.
Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said: ‘Empowering patients to choose where they receive treatment will help cut waiting lists, one of my five key priorities.
‘Our aim is to create an NHS built around patients, where everyone has more control over the care they receive, wherever they live or whatever their health needs are.’
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay said every patient should be able to easily choose where they go to receive treatment.
‘Millions of people downloaded the NHS App during the pandemic. Increasing use of this fantastic resource will enable them to exercise more choice and get access to essential information about the options for their care including journey time, length of wait and quality of service – all at the swipe of a smartphone screen.’
The Government said guidance had been provided to GP practices to support them to offer choice, with training available on using IT systems to make referrals.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: ‘Despite significant pressure, the NHS reduced 18 month waits for care by more than 90% by April and alongside existing tools like elective hubs, surgical robots and “prehab” checks, this is another way that we are continuing to embrace the latest innovations and tech for the benefit of patients.’
Dr Sarah Clark of Westgate Surgery, Otley, said: ‘As a GP I know how important it is for our patients to have the choice in where and when they are treated. Patients have different priorities and different needs and offering choice better fulfils that need.
‘By extending the options for patients they will be able to choose to be seen quicker or in more convenient locations for them.
‘Hopefully this will, in part, help reduce the wait for secondary care referrals but also reduce the number of appointments not attended by patients who have been given no option over where or when they are seen.’
Dr Kieran Sharrock, acting chair of the BMA England GP committee, said ‘doctors working in both primary and secondary care are acutely aware that our patients just want to be seen in good time and close to home’.
‘It is long waiting lists, due to the long-term undervaluing of NHS staff and poor workforce planning, that are preventing this from happening, not a lack of patient choice.
‘Whilst we fully support patients being given the choice where they wish to access care, and appreciate that NHS capacity must be utilised as efficiently as possible, this is not an answer to the huge waiting lists we face, and the announcement comes with little acknowledgement of its impact on primary care. Unless extra resource is provided to support this initiative then it will inevitably reduce GPs’ capacity to deal with patients’ clinical problems.’
He also said the announcement ‘fails to acknowledge that not all patients have access to a smart phone, and makes no reference to how they intend on ensuring that it does not digitally exclude marginalised groups’.
The Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson Daisy Cooper MP said: ‘Rishi Sunak is failing on his pledges to cut NHS waiting lists, recruit the NHS staff we need, and fix crumbling hospitals.
‘This latest gimmick will do nothing to change the fact that under the Conservatives, far too many patients are waiting far too long for the treatment they need.
‘The Government can’t tackle this health crisis until they address the huge staff shortages that blight our local health and care services.’
Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: ‘With 7.3 million patients waiting for planned care, it’s laughable that Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay’s big idea to get waiting lists down is to give patients a choice that they already have.’
The Government wants to see 75% of adults in England using the NHS App by March 2024 as the ‘front door’ to the health service.
The GP recovery plan, released earlier this month, aimed for ‘patients in over 90% of practices to see their records and practice messages, book appointments and order repeat prescriptions using the NHS App’ within the same time frame.