The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care makes a statement on action the government is taking to improve patient choice to help cut NHS waiting times.

The Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP

Madame Deputy Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a statement on the action the government is taking to improve patient choice as a way to help reduce NHS waiting times: one of the government’s five key priorities.

There are currently significant variations in waiting times across the country – and sometimes even within the same Integrated Care System.

Analysis from the Patient’s Association suggests that improved patient choice can reduce waiting times by up to three months.

So when he took office last year, the Prime Minister promised to make it easier for patients to make a meaningful choice and to raise public awareness of the patient’s right to choose.

Madame Deputy Speaker, because of the pandemic, we have an NHS waiting list at over 7.3 million.

And of that number, around 80% are waiting for outpatient appointments, with around 20% waiting for operations.

Greater patient choice will help us address this built up demand including, where appropriate, opening more routes for NHS patients to get treatment free at the point of access in the independent sector provided it meets NHS costs and standards.

Because we should use all available capacity in tackling the pandemic backlogs.

For example, for patients currently waiting for Ear, Nose and Throat treatment in London, the wait could be up to four months shorter with another provider.

Or for Trauma and Orthopaedics in the North-West, choosing another provider in the same region could cut your wait by three months.

So empowering patients to exercise their right to choose was one of the recommendations of the Elective Recovery Taskforce, who identified it as a vital way of delivering a post-pandemic recovery.

When addressing the 78 week backlog, analysis at the time showed that half of those who were waiting over 78 weeks for elective care were in just 11 Trusts, which reinforced the opportunity offered by raising awareness of patient choice and making it easier for patients to exercise that in a meaningful way.

As well as cutting waiting lists, choice empowers patients in terms of which aspects of the hospital service matters most to them.

Patients themselves can prioritise speed of care alongside other factors such as distance travelled, the CQC rating of the provider or they may have had previous care from a consultant-led team and want to return to that team.

We believe empowering the patient is an intrinsically good thing.

And we believe it cannot just be the preserve of those groups with the sharpest elbows – it must be open to all.

Indeed research from the King’s Fund has found and I quote:

Older respondents – those with no qualifications and those from a mixed and non-white background – were more likely to value choice.

Next, when we combine improved patient choice with better real-time data and greater transparency, we can drive up standards.

But where patients know much more about how their local hospital is performing, the pressure is on poor performers to close the gap with their near neighbours where patients are often being treated more quickly.

Madame Deputy Speaker, the case for choice is clear.

So to improve patient choice, we are announcing significant changes in a number of areas.

The first is technology.

Over 30 million people have now signed up to the NHS App and our target is for three-quarters of all adults in England to be registered by next March.

The app is already giving patients an improved front door for NHS services and we’re continuing to build on that.

When GPs make a referral, they will make a shortlist of the five most suitable providers and patients will be able to choose from the shortlist on the NHS App.

To support this, in March we completed the work of providing a single list of providers for those shortlists irrespective of whether those services are commissioned locally or nationally.

While the Honourable Member’s plan opposite to organise waiting lists on a regional basis might sound like a good idea on paper in reality, it would add an extra layer of bureaucracy.

Because national lists under this Conservative government will empower patients to pick wherever they choose.

For example, a patient registered in Sheffield might happily choose to receive treatment in Manchester, particularly if they have family members there who could assist with their care and recovery.

Madame Deputy Speaker, the second area of work is to improve the experience for those already on waiting lists, so they can get treatment more quickly.

From October 2023, patients who have waited more than 40 weeks for an appointment or who have a decision to treat but do not have a treatment date will be able to request a transfer to another provider with a shorter waiting list.

It is then our ambition to expand this offer to other groups of long waiters and we will work to offer this to more groups progressively lowering this towards 18 weeks as fast as is clinically possible.

Our third focus is around communications.

We want to increase the public’s awareness of today’s announcement with a national campaign with a particular aim to reach those groups who are most likely to benefit from greater choice as well as those least likely to exercise it.

We will also make sure GP practices – and others who refer patients for consultant-led care – are offering more patient choice and that they are supported with the right training and tech.

Fourth, Madame Deputy Speaker, we will focus on transparency.

With real-time information on performance it will be made more transparent for patients so they get a clearer understanding of the variations from place to place helping them to exercise informed choice.

We have worked to make ratings by the Care Quality Commission available and accessible to all and we are merging the ‘My Planned Care’ platform into the NHS website.

Madame Deputy Speaker, the party opposite has been busy announcing initiatives we already have under way like expanding the NHS App, embracing virtual wards, stopping kids from vaping.

But while they’ve been busy talking in England and failing to act on behalf of patients in Wales, we’ve been busy empowering patients and our announcement today is another example of that.

Madame Deputy Speaker, we are committed to cutting NHS waiting lists.

Today’s announcement will help us do that.

By empowering patients to access quicker treatment in hospitals with available capacity.

By giving them the technology so they can exercise their right to choose.

By giving patients the information to help them make that choice.

And by increasing communications to raise public awareness of their right to choose.

And by fostering much greater transparency and through funding that follows the patient to encourage Trusts to improve their offer to patients to better match the service offered in hospitals elsewhere.

Taken together, this will cut enable patients to access treatment more quickly and meet this government’s priority of reducing NHS waiting lists.

I commend this statement to the House.

Published 25 May 2023