Published: 07/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5808 Page 6

A groundbreaking review of reconfiguration plans in the North East has urged NHS organisations to involve the public in 'genuine' consultation - before they draw up any proposals for change.

The panel was set up by County Durham and Tees Valley strategic health authority to consider a controversial reconfiguration of cancer and arthroplasty services at North Tees and Hartlepool trust, after proposals for service changes leaked out, causing public concern and a 13,000-signature petition in a local paper.

The panel, chaired by Professor Joan Higgins, director of Manchester University's centre for healthcare management, was made up of members of local primary care trusts, local authorities and community health councils.

It has reported back after hearings with members of the public, local papers, NHS staff and pensioners' groups. It found that a shared protocol on consultation within the NHS on Teeside 'had not been followed' in drawing up the plans, and criticised the trust's proposals for access and transport.

It broadly backed the clinical case for cancer service changes and plans to reconfigure arthroplasty.

But Professor Higgins said: 'Our main conclusion really was about the public consultation process. It is not just about briefing and informing. It is about genuine involvement at an early stage, including generating the options.' She said the trust 'hadn't gone out to consultation and information was dribbling out' but the review process was effective. 'It gave people the opportunity to express their views. It doesn't replace the proper formal consultation that will take place now.'

SHA chief executive Ken Jarrold welcomed the independent report and noted the panel had received 'expert clinical advice'.

He said: 'All NHS bodies involved will discuss the panel's recommendations before the end of June.We will ensure local people receive the best possible services.'