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Hospitals advertise for patients

NHS hospitals will be allowed to advertise to attract patients in a competitive market, the Department of Health has revealed.

NHS hospitals will be allowed to advertise to attract patients in a competitive market in which doctors and nurses will never be sure how many people will choose to use their services, the Department of Health has revealed.

Sir Nigel Crisp, the NHS chief executive, published a report setting out how a "patient-led" service will develop over the next three years.

As a civil servant, he did not comment on the rival plans of the political parties for extending patients' rights. But he made clear that the high command of the NHS has abandoned any attempt to retain a centrally planned service.

Under the new system, hospitals will no longer contract with local NHS trusts or GPs to carry out an agreed number of non-emergency operations in any given year. Their activity will depend on the unpredictable choices of millions of patients.

Patients will be entitled to choose to be treated at any hospital ñ public, voluntary or private ñ which can meet NHS quality and cost standards. A target to give private hospitals 8 per cent of NHS work will be dropped and they will compete for all they can get. Those providing services for NHS patients will be expected to display the NHS logo.

Sir Nigel said NHS hospitals would be allowed to advertise to increase the number of customers/patients coming through their doors. "It is important that people know what they have to offer," he said.

A code of conduct will be drawn up to prevent hostile advertising criticising another hospital's performance. It would be inappropriate for a hospital facing the closure of unpopular departments due to lack of demand to use advertising to boost custom instead of addressing the reasons for its unpopularity, he added.

A Health Insight Unit will be established at the department to provide primary care trusts with marketing information about their local populations, similar to that used by supermarkets to target customers.

The document ñ Creating a Patient-led NHS ñ said: "Risk management in the future will involve a clearer approach to dealing with failure. High performing systems accept that failures will occur, and handle them decisively. In health, this means recognising that some services are indispensable while others can be replaced.

"The approach to failure will distinguish between contestable services, which can be allowed to exit, and indispensable services, where the response to failure needs to ensure the service remains in place."

Hospital trusts will be required to break even and could no longer afford to run unpopular services. But the NHS Bank will be told to stand ready to "support services in transition, where exit or recovery is needed".

2nd September 2008

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