Giving patients a choice of hospitals, one of the Government's main NHS reforms, is not top of the public's list of priorities.

People are more interested in having a say over health policy and the speed with which they get treatment rather than on choosing from a range of hospitals, a poll by the British Medical Association found.

The survey was released at the start of the BMA's annual representative meeting in Belfast, where doctors are expected to spend a week debating the Government's plans for the NHS. Tony Blair and the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, have made much of a policy that, from the beginning of this year, gives patients the choice of four hospitals at which they can have surgery. By 2008, people will be able to choose any hospital in the country rather than simply being admitted to their nearest treatment centre.

The "choice" agenda is one of the main battlegrounds between the parties over the NHS, and the Government has insisted that the public back the policy. But the survey of more than 1,000 people found that more than half - 55 per cent - of people did not believe that the NHS offered choice.

Only 39 per cent felt that having a choice between NHS and private services was very important to them.

Almost half did not rate having a choice between hospitals as a priority.

The most important issues of choice for the public centred on "having a say in things generally" and the timing of their treatment, the poll found.

James Johnson, the chairman of the BMA, said: "The choice agenda is something that patients are quite keen on but the Government was wrong to put so much emphasis on the choice of hospitals.

"They would have been far better to increase choice over how people are treated, particularly those with chronic conditions who are more worried about what access they have to different drugs than where they are seen," Mr Johnson said.

"The public rates the timing of their treatment substantially higher than choosing between hospitals."

The week-long BMA meeting is expected to highlight divisions between doctors and the Government over the direction of the health service.

Representatives will spend today debating proposals to increase the involvement of the private sector in the NHS and the ongoing budget deficits among local trusts.