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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?