Detailed statistics on the performance of maternity units are to be published for the first time, under plans to revolutionise the information provided to NHS patients.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, is considering a full unit-by-unit guide to maternity hospitals.

Ministers are holding talks with maternity specialists about providing details of the number of Caesarean sections carried out at each unit and rates of complications.

Figures would be adjusted for the seriousness of cases dealt with at each hospital and agreed with representatives of midwives and obstetricians. Tables could also include indicators such as whether new fathers are allowed to stay overnight at hospital.

Mr Milburn told The Observer yesterday that "the possibilities are endless".

He added: "Year after year, we will see more publications, more openness so that patients can make more choices. What it does is fundamentally change the relationship between the service and the patient."

Sources at the Department of Health said officials were talking to doctors across a range of special areas to agree publication of performance data to allow patients to compare hospitals in different regions.

Mr Milburn started the process last week, announcing the first performance tables of heart specialists as part of the Government's response to the Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry.

The Government is setting up an Office of Health Care Information as part of the new Commission for Health Improvement, a heathcare watchdog. Ministers want to agree on the publication of data with doctors to ensure that patients get accurate information and can choose where to seek any type of treatment.

It is also hoped that comparing the standards at hospitals in different areas will encourage poorly performing units to improve and learn from any innovations that have been used in the best areas.

A senior source said yesterday: "We want to publish more information about services in maternity clinics. There is a great long list of things that we could publish.

"We want to say if a unit is doctor-led or midwife-led and also give the number of Caesarean sections. Of course, some units will specialise in more difficult cases. We want to be able to publish comparative figures on a range of services. It will help clinicians to see how they compare with other areas."