Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group has been called in by the government to advise how the National Health Service can be made more user-friendly.

Consultants from Virgin Atlantic airline will visit hospitals around the country over the next three months.

They have been brought in to examine how patients can be provided with better food, cleaner accommodation, more bedside televisions and telephones and greater privacy.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn said Virgin would report on how hospitals could be made more welcoming in the summer.

He said that whereas in the past the consultant has been king, in the future the consumer must be king.

A ministerial aide said measures to encourage medical staff to treat patients with greater consideration were another likely outcome.

But Peter Hawker, chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants committee, stressed that the pressures on health service staff were of a different order to those experienced, for example, by staff on Virgin trains.

"Having witnessed his staff fail to reach their courtesy targets in those circumstances, it will be interesting to see what they achieve in the NHS, where levels of stress and pressure on doctors and nurses are much higher," he said.