Good manners and considerate behaviour from health service staff were promised yesterday by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, at the launch of a new Patient's Charter.
The improved charter introduces limits on waits for outpatient appointments for the first time, sets new targets on "trolley waits", and gives a commitment to patient privacy. Patients' wishes would be considered at all times, Mrs Bottomley said.
In response to protests about mixed sex wards, she said her officials were calling on NHS trusts to ensure privacy and provide separate washing and toilet facilities.
Patients would be told in advance what type of ward they will be staying on, with preferences for single sex accommodation being respected where possible, she said.
"People don't like it assumed that just because they are in a hospital they are going to be called by their Christian name," Mrs Bottomley said.
"Some people want to be called Mr or Mrs ... it is not a like it or lump it service any more. Our intention is to listen to what people say and try and get it incorporated in good practice."
She said the shorter waiting times for the first outpatient appointment, when a GP refers a patient to a consultant, would mean that nine out of 10 patients could expect to be seen within 13 weeks. This was a dramatic step forward, Mrs Bottomley said.
In a statement, the Prime Minister said: "The Patient's Charter is a vital element of the Citizen's Charter programme. It is a practical expression of the Government's commitment to improving standards in the NHS.
"Since its publication three-and-a-half years ago, the Charter has had an enormous impact on raising standards. It is used by patients and valued by staff."
New Charter standards include: n 90 per cent of first outpatient appointments to be carried out within 13 weeks and all before 26 weeks.
n Existing 18-month waiting time guarantee for hip, knee and cataract operations to be extended to all operations.
n A new one-year waiting time guarantee for coronary artery bypass grafts and associated procedures.
n A three- to four-hour national standard for "trolley waits" - admission to a ward from accident and emergency departments, reduced to two hours from April 1996.
n A new standard on hospital food so that patients' dietary needs and preferences are respected and a choice of dishes provided.
n A new standard specifying that patients receiving home visits from community nurses must be asked about convenient times and the visit should take place within two hours of that time.
The Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, however, said that telling patients in advance whether they were to be placed in a mixed sex ward was "simply not good enough".
He added: "This is a most insensitive measure. Patients will be faced with the awful dilemma of postponing treatment, often in pain and anxiety, or suffer the embarrassment and obvious difficulties of mixed-sex wards.
"The creeping introduction of mixed sex wards in hospitals is a further feature of the Tories' squeeze on the NHS budget."
Philip Hunt, director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, said: "Achieving this standard and responding to the need for 90 per cent of all patients to be seen in 13 weeks will be a tough challenge.''
Rodney Walker, chairman of the NHS Trust Federation, said: "Trusts will do their best to achieve these standards within the resources available to them, just as they have been doing with existing standards.
"However, since these standards only cover part of the services trusts provide, we must ensure that the Charter does not distract from wider service priorities."
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