The Confederation of British Industry has challenged the government to give the go-ahead to a further wave of independent sector treatment centres.

The Department of Health is set to announce a decision next month on the future of seven ISTCs that have been in procurement for the last three years.

The CBI says the government's decision on the future of ISTCs will be "pivotal" if prime minister Gordon Brown is to deliver on his promise of "deeper and wider" reform in the NHS, giving patients choice and a plurality of provision.

However, last November the department announced it was scrapping 13 ISTC schemes.

In a report published today, CBI director-general Richard Lambert said the government had reached a "critical point in the evolution of the NHS and its use of external providers".

"Does the government learn the lessons from ISTCs about the positive role independent providers can play in providing challenge and innovation into the system?" he said.

ISTCs and the NHS: sticking plaster or real reform? claims the first wave of 26 centres and units in operation have made a real impact on the performance of the NHS.

It says independent assessments show that patient satisfaction remains higher in the ISTCs than in the rest of the NHS, although it acknowledges that on average only 84 per cent of the contracted procedures were being taken up.

Commenting on the report, NHS Partners Network director David Worskett said: "The government has committed itself to the use of independent sector providers in primary care as well as in the acute sector and thus to building a powerful partnership between the different types of providers. We know from the evidence our members have collected that where NHS patients have experience of using the independent sector, patient satisfaction levels are encouragingly high.

"The CBI makes the important point that for patients across the country to get the maximum benefit from these improvements we need to see expansion of the role of the independent sector and ongoing commitment to its use in the future."