Since April 2008, NHS patients in England have had the right to choose where and when they receive non-urgent treatment.

Under the scheme, you should be given a choice of at least four hospitals or clinics, including NHS Hospitals, Foundation Trusts, Private Hospitals and Independent Sector Treatment Centres. In practice, you’re able to choose from any UK hospital that provides treatment to the accepted government standard, including private hospitals from all the leading providers. This means that even if you live in London, you can still be treated in Manchester, if, for example, that’s where your family live and you want to be near them while being treated.

This article is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

How the system works

You will still need to be referred by your GP before you can receive treatment. However, your GP will now give you a range of options and help you make your choice. All NHS care providers are listed online through a Choose and Book system which allows your GP to book your appointments for you during your consultation, or later, after you have considered your choice.

Comparing hospitals

Naturally, the most important factors in comparing different UK hospitals, either NHS or private, will vary from person to person. For some, waiting lists are the most important, while others do not wish to be treated on mixed-sex wards. You may be concerned about MRSA, or simply want to be close to your family and friends.

To help you make your choice see how different NHS hospitals compare, there is a very useful website called NHS Choices, which can be found as part of the NHS website at By entering a postcode, you will be given a list of hospitals in that area. You can then select various criteria to compare them by, including:

  • Distance from you
  • Parking facilities
  • Disabled facilities
  • Waiting times
  • Visiting hours
  • MRSA infection rates
  • Overall quality of service
  • Whether patients are treated with respect
  • How well patients are kept informed
  • Cleanliness and comfort
  • The availability of single-sex wards
  • General organisation

You can also read patient comments and patient ratings of different facilities, and add your own to enhance the system in due course. Private hospitals will often have their own website, or will be described in detail on the website of the private healthcare provider.

When the choice does not apply

You will not always be given the choice of where you are treated. If you require urgent attention, for example if you have sudden, severe chest pain or have been involved in an accident, the ambulance crew will make the decision for you, based on your immediate medical needs.

You may also have restricted choice if you need rapid access to cancer treatment, if you need urgent maternity care or if you require mental health services.

Furthermore, this system currently only applies to the NHS in England.

Things to consider

It is worth bearing in mind that although the new NHS Choices system represents an investment of over £90million, it’s still in its early stages and there are several issues which may skew the data upon which you base your decision.

The main issue to consider is the accuracy of the information given. A hospital may appear to have an impressive patient rating for a factor you consider important, but the short life of the system means this may be based on just a few opinions. Over time, this will become a more representative measure, but for the moment, it is always worth checking exactly how the rating has been worked out.

Other statistics can also be distorted by the manner in which they have been obtained. For example, Queen Victoria NHS trust in West Sussex topped the league for MRSA last year despite only having five cases all year. This is due to the figure being worked out per 1000 bed days. Being a small specialist unit of just 130 beds, this made them appear a high risk. In fact, other hospitals had upwards of 70 cases over the year.

Indeed, the government itself has warned against comparing one hospital with another on single issues such as MRSA.


Having a choice of UK hospitals to suit your own preferences and concerns is undeniably a good thing and should make treatment more pleasant and less traumatic for many people. However, this new system should be used with care when comparing individual hospitals and a range of criteria should be compared to gain a more realistic opinion.

In all cases, your GP, or other healthcare provider, will be able to advise you to help you make the right choice.

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