NHS trusts and independent providers of NHS services have the freedom from today to advertise direct to patients - but must abide by a new code of conduct.
The code of practice for the promotion of NHS funded services, laid before Parliament yesterday, is based on the Advertising Standards Authority code for consumer advertising with additional clauses to protect the NHS brand and logo and govern web advertising.
The ASA will adjudicate on general complaints while primary care trusts and strategic health authorities will rule on use of the NHS brand and logo.
The Department of Health says the new code has been consulted on and tested within the NHS, including by the Foundation Trust Network.
It also had a broad welcome in the Partners Network, which represents independent providers. Director David Worskett said: "We welcome the new code and the fact that it is based on the ASA code. It is much less likely to result in legal challenge as it is tried and tested."
However, it has raised questions about whether the NHS is ready to take on a new and complex role.
From 1 April, patients may choose any provider accredited by the NHS for elective and diagnostic procedures. The DH is preparing initiatives to underpin this including:
a new appeals process to rule on whether contracts have been awarded fairly, due this autumn;
listing on the NHS Choices website of providers by geographical proximity to the user, due by 1 April;
a national public awareness campaign on choice;
new procurement guidance;
new guidance for trusts and PCTs on merging or divesting themselves of functions.
The Partners Network welcomed the measures, but warned it would monitor implementation.
Mr Worskett said: "We will be looking carefully at the behaviour of PCTs and whether the systems work to the standard they are intended to."
The new appeals process is likely to be run by a competition panel. A DH spokesperson said: "We would expect SHAs and PCTs to implement whatever the competition panel recommends."
HSJ's Fundamentals of Marketing conference is on 29 April, www.hsj-fundamentals.co.uk