Patients in England who have been waiting the longest can now opt to travel for elective treatment, but the BMA warned it will increase GP workload.
From today, any patient who has been waiting longer than 40 weeks and does not have an appointment within the next eight weeks will be contacted by their hospital and offered the chance to travel to a different hospital for treatment.
But Dr Samira Anane, deputy chair of the BMA’s GP Committee for England, said as patients will try to navigate their way across unfamiliar health systems, they will default to contacting their GP that they know and trust.
She said: ‘Given the unacceptable number of people waiting for treatment, it is always important to think about how NHS capacity and services are best utilised.
‘The focus needs to be on delivering patient care that is safe, efficient, and effective. People having to travel longer distances and rely on support outside their local areas and hospitals could lead to disjointed and fragmented treatment, impacting upon valuable continuity of care.
‘Sadly, these proposals are likely to lead to an increase in GP workload, as patients trying to navigate their way across unfamiliar health systems default to contacting their GP that they know and trust.
‘It is important that patient choice is supported, but this should be facilitated by bolstering and investing in local services and workforce that serve communities rather than relying on patients to travel far away when they’d rather be closer to home.’
NHS England said that offers will be sent to up to 400,000 eligible patients who will then be able to submit their details including how far they are willing to travel, 50 miles, 100 miles or nationally.
NHS teams can then identify whether any alternative hospitals have capacity to see them sooner and in some cases he patient’s request will be uploaded to the NHS’ hospital matching platform to see if NHS or independent sector providers elsewhere in the country can take on their care.
NHS England’s chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: ‘Despite pressure and the huge disruption caused by strikes, NHS staff have made great progress in reducing the longest waits for patients – this new step to offer NHS patients who have been waiting the longest the opportunity to consider travelling for treatment is just another example of how we are introducing new approaches to reduce how long patients wait, while improving the choice and control they have over their own care.
‘Giving this extra option to these patients also demonstrates the clear benefits of a single national health service, with staff able to share capacity right across the country.
‘So, whether a patient’s care moves to the next town or somewhere further away, it is absolutely right that we make the most of available capacity across the country to continue to reduce the backlogs that have inevitably built up due to the pandemic and provide the best possible service for patients.’
Health secretary Steve Barclay said: ‘Empowering people to choose where and when they receive their treatment will help tackle waiting lists and improve access to NHS care.
‘From today, those waiting 40 weeks or more will be given more options to speed up treatment, including at hospitals with shorter waiting times or using capacity within the independent sector.
‘This is the next step in our plan build a health service around patients and follows on from the roll out of Community Diagnostic Centres (CDC), surgical hubs and virtual wards to unlock capacity in the NHS.’
The Government has announced today three of the final CDC locations which it said will serve tens of thousands of patients in South East London, Bognor Regis in West Sussex and Halifax in Yorkshire.
It said that over five million tests, checks and scans have been delivered for patients so far, as part of efforts to bring down waiting lists.
In August, NHS England expanded its hospital ‘matching’ platform which allows patients to be seen elsewhere, including at private hospitals, in order to bring down elective backlogs.
Earlier this month, the CQC’s chief executive officer said that hospital backlogs mean that GPs are having to manage people on waiting lists for longer creating ‘avoidable’ workload.
A Health Foundation report last week warned that the NHS waiting list will reach a high of 8 million next summer if current trends continue, regardless of strike action.