Health Secretary John Reid has upped the ante on the Government’s patient choice agenda and the electronic appointment booking targets, with a new pledge that by 2005 all patients will be offered at least four different choices over where they are treated when the initial decision is made by their GP to refer them for treatment.

In a speech to the New Health Network he hailed the success of the Patient Choice pilot schemes so far, and confirmed that from Summer 2004 all patients waiting more than six months for elective surgery will be offered the choice of faster treatment in at least one alternative hospital.

He then went on to extend the government’s commitment to providing patients with choices on where they are treated. By the end of 2005 the objective will be to offer patients a choice of at least four different hospitals, or other providers, when referred by their GP.

Accompanying guidance from the DoH says that from December 2005 “Patients who may require elective surgery will be offered a choice of 4-5 hospitals (or other appropriate providers) once the GP has decided that a referral is required.” The guidance states these providers could include NHS trusts, diagnostic and treatment centres, private hospitals or primary care practitioners. Patients will be supported in their choice by a combination of the GP, primary care team, practice staff and a booking management service.

“By offering choice, patients will be given the chance to control their own destiny and can choose the hospital that best suits their needs,” stated Mr Reid. He stressed that each of the choices on offer will need to be backed up by detailed information, which will be on hand in the GP’s surgery.

The Health Secretary added that better information and IT, for both patients and GPs, will be vital to achieving pledge on patient choice by 2005: "To make these vital decisions patients will need access to more information about the NHS than ever before. To support this GPs must be equipped with the information and technology to help patients exercise their choice at the point when a referral becomes necessary.”

He continued: “The Electronic Booking Service will allow patients and their GPs to choose and book both the hospital and the appointment time they prefer.”

The procurement process for electronic appointment booking is the most advanced component of the National Programme for IT in the NHS. A short-list of three candidates to become the National Application Service Provider for England has been reached, with a final contract due to be awarded by October 2003