Tony Blair has defended the development of the NHS’s Choose and Book programme, the new name for the new NHS e-booking service, at Prime Minister’s question time as the deadline for the first live e-booking looms closer.

Speaking on 16 June, Blair said: "It is this government, for the first time in the context of the health service, who have introduced the ability of people to choose."

Blair was responding to opposition leader Michael Howard’s claim that “if [patients] are lucky, [they] get the choice of one additional hospital somewhere in the country, selected not by them but by the system” and that the system has “forced people into the private sector."

In response, Blair highlighted the need to “expand the choice as we expand the capacity", and attacked Conservative plans for ‘patient passports’, arguing that they would cost both patients and the NHS money.

Following the mauling that the Labour and the Conservative parties received in local and European elections last week, both are now stressing their credentials as proponents of ‘patient choice’, supposedly the next ‘big idea’ for accelerating health service reform. E-booking is central to translating the concept of choice into a reality for patients.

However, E-Health Insider understands from highly reputable sources that the first live e-booking has been delayed and may not occur by the end of June, the deadline set for suppliers involved.  The national programme’s publicly stated deadline for e-booking to go live is ‘summer 2004’.

A further indication that the service was planned to first go live by the end of June, however, is provided by  the Health Service Journal this week which includes a large pull-out poster and a wrap-around advertisement on the cover  announcing the launch of the new Choose and Book service. 

The poster announces that the Choose and Book service, a GP e-booking referral service that promises to let patients pick a time, place and date to see a consultant, is being piloted in a number of PCTs, and is being rolled out during summer 2004 for patients facing a wait of over six months in London and the North-East.

Once operational at the early adopter sites e-booking is due to be rolled out across the whole of the NHS in England by the end of 2005.  E-booking is a national application that will operate across the new NHS ‘data spine’. The e-booking service is being delivered by ATOS Origin and Cerner, on behalf of the National Programme for IT.  

Choose and Book consists of a combination of e-booking facilities in each GP surgery and information on waiting times posted on the internet. It will be available for use by all patients seeking an initial referral by the end of 2005.

A spokesperson for the DH told E-Health Insider that the facility for patients to view average waiting times for consultants on was already available, and hadn’t yet been formally announced.

Other advantages that the Choose and Book e-booking system might bring include a reduction in secretarial time spent chasing up appointments, a fall in DNAs (Did Not Attends) for patients choosing their own time and place, and greater accuracy in the transfer of data.

The Choose and Book website says the system will be software-based; any recent upgrades to IT systems that are not compatible with the software will need to be updated once again. N3 is “the preferred route" for connecting with Choose and Book.

A backup paper system will also run alongside the electronic system, should patients not wish any of their details to be stored and transferred on computer.

Detailed information, along with training and guidance, is available on