Patients will be able to have surgery within private hospitals if they are waiting for more than a year and a half as the government pushes for more “choice”.
In a speech on Tuesday afternoon, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid, is expected to say the UK is coming to a “crossroads” where it must choose between “endlessly putting in more and more money, or reforming how we do healthcare.”
In an announcement of measures, which have previously been mooted, the government said patients waiting for 18 months or more will be contacted to discuss changing their provider, which includes private providers, by the end of the year. Although it is not clear how exactly this will be measured and whether this means patients waiting more than 18 months as of April 2022 or patients who hit this milestone by December.
According to the release patients will also be supported by the NHS will be with travel costs “if feasible.”
The government said it will review data on waiting times with the NHS, to allow GPs to offer patients “more choice, including in the private sector.”
The number of people waiting for NHS care reached more than 6.1 million in December, with new figures due to be published on Thursday.
Those waiting for more than two years for care, which the government has promised to reduce to zero by July 2022, increased again from 18,585 in November to 20,065 in December.
It is not clear whether the new “patient choice” rules will apply to patients waiting too long for mental health services or just physical healthcare.
The government has also said 4 million people will be allowed to access personal health budget’ by 2024, which means the NHS will allow them to make decisions about what care to buy. The previous NHS target, set in 2019, was for 2.5 million people to have this by 2023-24.
Personal health budgets can be granted to people with certain long term complex conditions and in order to secure these clinicians will have to determine whether the patient meets the criteria and how much to allocate.
As part of announcements today, the Mr Javid will commit to publishing a digital health plan by spring covering actions such as ‘virtual’ wards where patients are monitored at home.
The NHS also aims to get 75 per cent of all adults in England using the app by March 2024, making it easier for people to book appointments, communicate with health providers and see test results.
There will also be the rolling out of electronic records to 90 per cent of trusts by December 2023 and 80 per cent of social care providers by March 2024.
In his speech on Tuesday afternoon, the health and social care secretary will say there are a long term challenges the NHS must adapt to such as “changing demographics and disease; changing technology and expectations; and unsustainable finances.”
He will add: “Taken together, it’s clear we were always going to come to a crossroads: a point where we must choose between endlessly putting in more and more money, or reforming how we do healthcare.
“There were major challenges before the pandemic. Pressures in social care were rising substantially too. But without the pandemic, the Covid backlogs, an even more stretched workforce and other new pressures, that choice might have been many years down the line. The shock of Covid and the urgent need for recovery has brought us to this crossroads right now. I choose to reform.”
Responding to the health secretary’s announcement, Nuffield Trust chief executive Nigel Edwards said: “Using choice of hospital and personalized budgets is a perfectly good policy and will help some patients get care that suits them better. But the big problems with offering people care tailored to their needs lie elsewhere.
“Above all, we need general practice to survive the immense pressure it faces and to be able to offer all the different types of patient who need it the right kind of care – be that a rapid telephone appointment, or a face-to-face chat with a GP they know.This is the bedrock of the NHS and the part we rely on to coordinate care around patients, but I am worried that it is in danger of failing.”
He warned against Whitehall imposing a new model on general practice and said it should “avoid the urge to promise new targets for fast appointments which may further undermine the other tasks we need GPs to do”.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.