Health minister Earl Howe has denied there is any conflict between opening up healthcare provision to more competition and encouraging collaboration between providers.

Speaking exclusively to HSJ, the minister said the “any willing provider” approach, expected to be fleshed out in this week’s health and social care bill, was not “an end in itself”.

He said: “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding quite frankly about the supposed dichotomy between any willing provider and continuity of care. I just don’t see it.”

The concept of any willing provider, which would see NHS organisations compete alongside private companies and not-for-profit organisations, has been criticised by the unions and royal colleges, which fear it will make it harder for NHS staff from different organisations to work together.

However, Earl Howe said the approach was designed to drive up quality and was not incompatible with providing integrated care pathways based around “quality standards and commissioning guidelines”.

He said: “The idea of contestability at any part of that pathway is not alien to an integrated service.”

Innovation Expo

Hear more from Sir David Nicholson and Earl Howe at Healthcare Innovation Expo on 9-10 March at ExCel London. Expo 2011 will be the largest event of its type in Europe, with over 250 exhibitors, 100 speakers and 180 seminars, all featuring high impact changes that can deliver improvements in quality and productivity in the NHS.

Developed and supported by the Department of Health and UK Trade & Investment, the Expo will help managers, GPs, clinicians and frontline staff understand the Coalition’s reform agenda, the part they have to play in delivering change, and how they can drive adoption and diffusion of innovation.

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Innovation Expo to profile QIPP programme