The NHS should not look to quality and safety improvements to solve its impending funding problems, leaders in the field have warned.

Health Foundation chief executive Stephen Thornton said improvement programmes, such as its own safer patients initiative, could not save money on the scale that would be needed.

He warned there was “over-claiming” that these approaches would solve the problems.

He told the Institute of Healthcare Management annual conference last week: “There are a number of people in the upper echelons of NHS management who [in the past] thought what we are talking about was for the Moonies.

“They are now flooding into this territory and they don’t know what they are talking about.”

Robin Burgess, chief executive of the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership, which co-ordinates clinical audit for improving quality, said he did not think nationally NHS managers were yet demanding savings from quality improvement.

However, he said: “Anyone looking to see quality improvement as being the model way out of recession does have to be realistic. You have to assess all the impacts [of an improvement programme] including patient outcomes… not rush into it for the wrong reasons.

“People could say, ‘Look we are doing quality improvement,’ but it would be a smokescreen for cuts.”

Salford Royal foundation trust chief executive David Dalton, who is leading a membership organisation for improving quality and safety, said significant savings could be found.

This would be increasingly difficult though, as primary care trusts had to reduce spending and trusts had to cut capacity rather than treat more patients.

“We have been able to attract more patients into the hospital as a consequence [of reducing occupied bed days] and generate more income,” he said.

“In future we are going to have to mass those into the number you need to close a four-bed bay and get the associated savings. That is much harder to do. But I do believe getting improvements in the quality of services is going to be a key way of making savings.”

In March health secretary Alan Johnson, when asked how the NHS would deal with low or negative funding growth, told the Commons health committee it should be “examining every penny” spent.

“[Health minister Lord] Darzi makes this point, which I think is shared by clinicians across the country, that actually quality costs less.”