NHS patients will be able to choose and book outpatient hospital appointments directly using their own PCs or those in local libraries, under a pilot scheme launched today.
The scheme allows patients in 10 local areas to use the Choose and Book computer system now used by GP surgeries.
Patients will still need to be referred for surgery by their GP and be given an access code allowing them to log on to the Choose and Book system. Patients without their own PC will be able to access the system at local libraries in the 10 pilot areas, with support from librarians.
But uptake of the Choose and Book system by GPs is still limited, with figures published earlier this week by Connecting for Health – which runs the NHS’s £12.4bn National Programme for IT – showing that just 37% of GP referrals to outpatients departments went through the system. This falls far short of the Department of Health target for 90% of appointments to be booked through the system.
A survey by specialist medical polling organisation Medix in November found that among GPs who used the system regularly, 90% said it increased the time taken to refer a patient to hospital while 70% said Choose and Book was either detrimental to patient care or made no difference.
The launch of the patient access pilot was accompanied by the announcement by health secretary Patricia Hewitt of a new “super website” to support the government’s patient choice policy.
From July, patients needing hip replacements or orthopaedic surgery will be able to choose from NHS or private sector hospitals across the country, provided they meet NHS standards and costs. The NHS Choices website - which will also go live in July - is aimed at supporting patient choice by giving patients access to information about different hospitals.
The website will include searchable directories of hospitals, GPs and care homes, comparative data on hospital waiting times, cleanliness and readmission rates and a feedback facility to allow patients to comment on their hospital treatment.
The site will also provide access to a library of approved medical literature, multimedia guides on the 40 most common hospital procedures and information about managing chronic conditions and healthy living.
Hewitt will hope that the NHS Choices website is more successful than the Medical Training Application Service website set up earlier this year to allow junior doctors to apply for specialist training posts. The site crashed under pressure of large numbers of junior doctors trying to apply online simultaneously. The British Medical Association said the system had "descended into pandemonium” and warned that junior doctors who should have received interview offers had been wrongly disqualified by the computerised process.
The government was forced to call a snap review of the system, and eventually to offer interviews to doctors who were wrongly excluded.