Health Check: `Most of us want high-quality treatment from our local NHS hospital, not a bewildering list of different clinics'

LAST YEAR, my father developed the relatively minor but very painful condition of gallstones. He was told he needed surgery - but the waiting time at his local NHS hospital in Kent was between a year and 18 months.

My father is self-employed, and the crippling attacks caused by the condition had already left him unable to work at times. To wait up to a year-and- a-half for treatment was unbearable, both for him and his family watching him suffer.

So he paid more than pounds 3,000 for private surgery. "I didn't have any choice," he said. "The pain was driving me insane."

But my father was lucky - he did have a choice. Although not rich and without private health insurance, he did have the money to pay for one- off treatment in the independent sector. He was treated within weeks and back at work shortly afterwards. Without that option, his choice was limited to the NHS or nothing.

It is precisely this situation which the Government aims to eradicate, with a transformation of the health-service policy which it claims will be the biggest since the foundation of the welfare state. New Labour's new mantra on health for the forthcoming election will be "choice" - the nanny state or doctor no longer knows best, the patient does.

From December, patients needing elective, non-emergency surgery, will be given the choice of five providers for their treatment. They could include the local hospital, a privately run but NHS-contracted Independent Treatment Centre (ITC), or a private hospital with whom a set tariff for operations has been agreed with the local Primary Care Trust.

For the patient, treatment will remain free at the point of delivery, while funding for the operation will follow them to wherever they choose to go.

In effect, this will make healthcare provision into a popularity contest - if a local hospital has long waiting times or a bad reputation, patients may well choose to go to an ITC down the road. The local hospital will lose money, wards may close, and unless managers pull their socks up, the entire hospital could be shut down.

In five years' time, when the NHS is 60 years old, the patient choice initiative will have been extended so that anyone in the country will be able to choose anywhere to have their routine surgery.

The ultimate Government pledge is that by 2008, no patient will wait longer than nine weeks from the point of seeing their GP and being told they need routine surgery to having their operation.

John Reid, the Health Secretary, says this choice amounts to a radical transfer of power in the NHS from the provider to the patient. While it will ultimately be his hand that signs the death sentence on a local NHS hospital, he says it will effectively be the patients who make the decision, with their choices on where they are treated. Good hospitals with fast access, quality treatment and local support will prosper; failing hospitals will be forced to raise their standards or lose funding.

The private sector, once viewed with such suspicion by former left-wing politicians such as Dr Reid, will now be brought on side, helping to increase capacity and provide another New Labour favourite, diversity of provision.

This alliance has also stymied the Tories in their attempt to gain the upper hand in the health debate. The Conservative policy - to pay half the cost of private surgery to patients if they opt out of the NHS - is still mired in the belief that most people have the means and the will to spend money in the independent sector.

On the surface, Labour's initiative seems much more attractive. But are we really being offered a choice? Dr Reid, a Phd rather than a medic, doesn't seem to like or trust the medical profession very much.

Hospital consultants have raised concerns that they are coming under pressure to refer patients to the ITCs, which have been brought into the fold with guarantees of a set volume of patients for the first five years of their contracts.

When these worries are put to Dr Reid, he dismisses them with accusations that for years doctors have made money by emphasising the long NHS waiting times to patients before offering to do the same operation privately. He insists that it "is the patients who will decide" which hospitals close.

But what kind of choice is it to have the option of a privately run ITC 40 miles away that could treat you quicker, but knowing that your decision could lead to the closure of your local NHS hospital?

Most people want fast access and high-quality treatment delivered by their local NHS hospital, not a bewildering list of different centres, clinics and hospitals all over the country.

By offering us choice, is Labour really admitting that the postcode lottery of unequal treatment and quality in the NHS is here to stay?

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot