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Patients in England who need a hip replacement will be able to choose surgery anywhere in the country from this July.
The announcement, made last week by the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, means that ministers will meet their pledge to provide a nationwide choice of hospital for elective orthopaedic surgery a year ahead of schedule.
Currently all patients needing any routine surgery are able to choose from four local hospitals, 34 foundation trusts, and 15 independent sector providers.
The news came as Ms Hewitt announced this summer's launch of NHS Choices, which will provide the public with a new internet site containing directories of hospitals, GPs, and care homes and data on hospitals' waiting times, readmission rates, and cleanliness.
The government said that the initiative was designed to help patients in the most disadvantaged communities.
Ms Hewitt said, “Patient choice is about people being in control. Patients needing a hospital appointment should have the right to pick and choose their time, date, and place.
“To make this happen we need to invest in facilities to help patients take control. Using public libraries and the internet is an ideal way to support patients, families, and carers with information.”
The new website will run alongside but not replace Choose and Book, the system that allows patients in general practice clinics to book hospital appointments.
James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association, said, “While this website is likely to have a lot of useful information, we need to make sure the information is accurate and that patients are able to use it meaningfully.”
Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said, “Today's announcement of measures to help patients choose where to be treated is good news for patients and the NHS staff that help them make informed choices.
She added, “NHS leaders will also welcome the introduction of free choice for hip operations and orthopaedic treatment a year ahead of schedule.”
Ms Hewitt also announced a pilot project in 10 parts of the country in which patients will be able to book hospital appointments online at their local libraries. Librarians will be on hand to help patients use the website.
However, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman, Norman Lamb, said, “The government is finally giving people information to make health choices—almost three years after they first introduced Choose and Book. That's quite a wait.
“Some of these initiatives smack of gimmickry. How can a librarian match the guidance given by a highly trained GP?”
Dr Morgan said, “We hope that the measures in today's announcement, including a website and trained librarians, will aid both patients and their GPs when choosing where to go for their care.
“However, we believe that GPs should retain the pivotal role in supporting their patients to make these choices.”