Published: 14/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5951 Page 8

The expert patients programme looks set to be significantly expanded if Labour wins the election on 5 May.

The news comes as initial Department of Health research shows the programme has led to a notable drop in the use of NHS services by participants better able to manage their own condition.

Speaking at an election debate on long-term conditions at London's Royal Society, health minister John Hutton said he was committed to the programme: 'Patient-centred care is at the heart of our programme, ' he said. 'I am looking for a very significant expansion of this from a thirdterm Labour government.' He also promised that Labour would give more incentives to help health and social care work together to allow people to stay at home through the provision of assistive technology: 'I am confident we will be able to say more on this in the next few weeks, ' he said.

Around 20,000 people have been on an EPP course, which are aimed at those with long-term conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and depression. They are delivered by trainers living with long term conditions.

The courses do not provide help in dealing with a particular illnesses, but offer help with skills such as decision-making, coping with pain and fatigue and managing relationships with healthcare professionals.

Speaking later at last week's World Healthcare Congress in Paris, national director for patient and public involvement Harry Cayton would like to see the programme expanded to cover 100,000 participants. He is also keen for the voluntary sector to provide greater capacity and choice.

Research into 245 EPP courses involving nearly 1,000 participants, unveiled by Mr Cayton at the congress, found that patients' use of accident and emergency services fell by 16 per cent. The research also recorded a 10 per cent decrease in outpatient visits, 9 per cent reduction in the use of physiotherapy and 7 per cent drop in GP consultations.

The reduction in the use of NHS services was mirrored by an increase in use of care alternatives.

The research also showed significant improvements in patient experience with, for example, 50 per cent of participants saying they found it easier to manage symptoms of pain and tiredness. The perception of the intensity of symptoms also declined.

But reductions in hospital admissions were shown to be less statistically significant.

Mr Cayton told the congress:

'These are patients who because they are taking responsibility for their own condition are managing it much more effectively.' However, he stressed that there was need now to secure 'more robust data' on the programme.