Labour’s health service changes in 2006 included a plan to give patients choice of treatment from ‘any willing provider’. A new analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that many NHS patients have already benefited. For some common procedures, up to one-in-five are choosing to have an operation somewhere other than their local NHS trust. Already, mounting evidence indicates that choice and competition are raising quality. The latest research, which shows rising numbers of patients exercising the choice now available to them is very good news.
However, the worry now is that such progress in the spread of competition might slow down in response to the sustained spending squeeze. As NHS trusts struggle to remain in financial balance, particularly those losing patients to other providers of care, there is a very real risk that the NHS will try to protect its own. The new Clinical Commissioning Groups must not be permitted to resort to the subtle practices used by the old Primary Care Trusts to restrict choice.
Far better that NHS trusts take the necessary steps to put their own houses in order for the long term, than take the easy option of passing the buck and unfairly undermining the new providers.
*Tony Hockley is the author of A Premium on Patients: Funding the Future NHS and Director of the Policy Analysis Centre. He teaches on postgraduate health policy courses at the LSE.