One year after the introduction of free choice, early analysis suggests some patients are using their right to choose the hospital at which they are treated.

It is not all patients - or even a number approaching a majority - but the evidence suggests that when people want to be treated somewhere other than the hospital up the road, they know they can be.

What is needed now is more qualitative research into the effects of the policy.

Giving all patients the right to free choice costs time, effort and, significantly, money.

As HSJ reveals today, available data on hospital use is not adequate to reveal whether patient choice is actually driving up standards.

It highlights possible trends, for example revealing in which regions patients are most likely to travel further than their local hospital.

But it does not give an accurate picture of the detail, and cannot by its nature tell us anything about patients’ motivation in using - or not using - their right to free choice.

This means hospitals cannot use it to improve their services and commissioners cannot use it to inform their decisions into the longer term.

Qualitative research by the Picker Institute and the King’s Fund, due next year, will shed valuable light.