Published: 05/02/2004, Volume II4, No. 5891 Page 5

The Department of Health is to embark on a 'national publicity drive' to raise awareness of patient choice among NHS staff.

Speaking at Tuesday's HSJ conference on choice at the point of referral, DoH director of access Margaret Edwards said: 'We want staff to be advocates for choice and help control public expectations.'

Ms Edwards said demand for choice was unprecedented and something that 'customers really want'.

She said results from pilots so far showed that choice did not only reduce waiting times for those who took advantage of the initiative. By the end of next month, the service should see a total reduction of 30,000 in the numbers of people waiting six months and more thanks to choice.

Ms Edwards also unveiled the timetable ahead for the roll-out of choice, beginning with a number of early adopter sites to start work in September.

Following the national target to bring down waits for cataract operations to three months by December this year, from January 2005 choice at the point of referral will also be introduced for cataracts. Primary care trusts will need to embed choice in their contracts from April 2005, in preparation for full roll-out by December of the same year.

Ms Edwards downplayed expectations that patient choice advisers would play the central role in supporting the initiative.

She said the level of support required by patients could range from those who would make decisions based simply on a conversation with a GP, to those who required the full assistance of a patient-choice adviser.

In between those extremes would sit the great majority of patients, who would make decisions based on support from practice staff, while 'a smaller cohort' would need additional support from 'franchised voluntary groups - particularly around chronic disease.'

NHS head of capacity plurality and choice Bob Ricketts flagged up the importance of this work.

He said there was a 'major role for the voluntary sector' in advising people in choice - particularly with respect to hard-to-reach sections of the community, such as people with learning disabilities or those for whom English is not their first language.

He told delegates that the NHS would negotiate with the voluntary sector, designing a framework for NHS organisations to decide whether voluntary sector involvement was appropriate.

The DoH will publish guidance for early implementer practices in March, with final guidance due in July.