Concern over new hospital choice system

FEARS were last night voiced that Essex's top performing hospitals could end up besieged by patients from outside the traditional catchment areas demanding treatment.

FEARS were last night voiced that Essex's top performing hospitals could end up besieged by patients from outside the traditional catchment areas demanding treatment.

A new choice system introduced in Essex gives patients needing a first hospital outpatient appointment a choice of where and when they go.

For most specialties the choice will include all five acute hospital trusts in Essex - based at Colchester, Chelmsford, Harlow, Southend and Basildon.

Typically, the choice will also include other hospitals in the East, such as Ipswich Hospital, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust and West Suffolk Hospital, in Bury St Edmunds.

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While the hospital trusts yesterday said the changes would not cause any problems, critics fear some hospitals - notably the three star Colchester General Hospital - will quickly become oversubscribed with patients choosing them because of their reputation and star rating.

Critics also claim that hospitals would be forced into becoming increasingly specialised in certain areas because of increased patient demand.

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The possibility of such scenario was last night confirmed by the Essex Strategic Health Authority, which said it was down to hospital management to cope with upsurges in patient demand.

A spokesman for Essex Strategic Health Authority said hospitals could well become increasingly specialised if they were faced by heightened demand for certain services.

He said: “This is part of patient choice and giving people the options.

“It will be down to the management of hospitals to manage capacity issues but this will not change or alter the target times that are set.

“Patients will be able to decide where they want to be treated and trusts will have to manage that.”

Vicky Williams, of Tendring Health Action Group, said: “It is going to cause confusion. Who is going to come first - the people who live in the area traditionally served by a hospital or those from outside?

“It is just wrong, each trust should be there to provide for the people living in the area.”

She added she feared increased waiting times at the top performing hospitals such as Colchester General Hospital.

Ray Cole, of Essex Rivers Patient and Public Involvement Forum, said: “There are two sides of the coin. “There will be patients who will always want to go to the hospital nearest their homes.

“On the other are the people who want to go to the best place for a particular treatment.”

He said people wanting to get the best keyhole surgery treatment are likely to Colchester General Hospital because of its reputation as a centre of excellence.

He added there would be a further group of people who would simply choose on the basis of lowest waiting times for treatment.

But Tracey Buckingham, director of commissioning at Essex Rivers Healthcare Trust, said the new system promised to create a healthcare system that better fitted people's needs and lives.

She said: “The choice system gives patients the choice of where and when it suits them to be treated which means they can fit their hospital appointment in with their life, not the other way round.”

And a spokesman for Essex Rivers Healthcare Trust and Mid Essex Hospitals Trust said: “It is not really going to be a problem.”

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