Patient choice has been a feature of the NHS in England for the last two decades, but patients' knowledge about what choices they have in accessing their NHS healthcare is variable.  

With NHS waiting lists currently at record levels – and waiting times expected to worsen for some time –  the Patients Association and the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN) have worked together to look at the role patient choice can play in tackling the elective care backlog.

The results of our research are captured in our report, Time to choose. How patients exercising their right to choose can help clear the NHS elective backlog.

The report aims to help inform the policy debate on patient choice, setting out:

  • The history of patient choice in the NHS and what rights patients currently have.
  • The role of patient choice and how it can enable patients to access faster care.
  • The public’s view of patient choice and the support patients need to make informed choices.
  • Current policies in place to facilitate patient choice.
  • The potential gains available from the wider exercise of patient choice, in terms of current levels of variation in waiting times, and travel distances to independent sector facilities.
  • Recommendations for the NHS on how to improve awareness of choice and support people to exercise their rights.

Overall, the report found significant variations in waiting times across the country – from the South West where the difference between the providers with the best and worst waits is over 18 weeks (4 months), to London where patients are waiting over 2 months more in the poorest performing providers.

The research also found that patients do not need to travel long distances to access care more quickly. On average, a patient would need to travel just 13.2 miles to go from one of the worst performing providers to one of the top performers. Doing so could save patients 14 weeks of waiting if they move from providers with an average waiting time of 22 weeks to one with an average of 8 weeks.

The potential for reducing waiting times (both for individuals and across the system as a whole) by accessing care through an alternative provider was also backed up by both polling and focus group work, which found the public is enthusiastic about patient choice.

However, people's awareness of their rights around where they receive their NHS treatment is low, suggesting a need for an urgent push by the Government and NHS England to do more to promote choice and make it easier for patients to understand the options available to them.