The Department of Health is to push ahead with the development of clinical quality measures to help patients decide where they want to be treated.

When "free choice" of hospitals comes into force in April, patients will be able to see waiting times and MRSA rates for local hospitals and treatment centres on the NHS Choices website. Data on patients' experience of treatment should also be available soon.

DH head of demand-side reform Bob Ricketts said the department would accelerate the development of clinical quality measures but would need to look carefully at what was appropriate and how they were presented.

He said the first step would be to consolidate existing information in the NHS. "We will then start to define new, more intelligent measures that tend to describe quality, not just outcomes."

NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh said surgery mortality rates were "blunt measures" so it was useful to look at parameters such as whether the right antibiotics were given at the right time and whether a patient was discharged with the right drugs.

The DH is spending£600,000 on a publicity drive to promote free choice to patients and is encouraging trusts to raise awareness among GPs.

Healthcare providers funded by the NHS can promote their services but will be expected to adhere to a code of conduct, which was published last week and is based on Advertising Standards Authority codes.

Mr Ricketts said the code would prevent providers publishing "misleading statements" or "knocking competitors". But he saw no problem with a hospital with a low MRSA rate advertising the fact.

The ASA will oversee general advertising standards and NHS-specific rules will be enforced by primary care trusts and strategic health authorities backed by a new Co-operation and Competition Panel.

Foundation Trust Network director Sue Slipman said it was important trusts did not face "double jeopardy" because of the split in responsibilities.

The code does not set limits on how much providers can spend on promotion but says they should "recognise the potential effect on the reputation of the NHS of disproportionate expenditure", adding TV promotion was unlikely to be justifiable.

Mr Ricketts said he did not anticipate providers "wasting money" on promotion and that the tariff system would effectively cap expenditure

NHS Alliance chair Dr Michael Dixon said he hoped the DH would not hesitate to strengthen the code if required.

Other health service commentators suggested the approach was "naive". "Particularly if you're talking about commercial providers who are in it for the long term and will make a loss if they don't spend a fortune on advertising," said one.

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