Patients deserve real choice when making decisions about their treatment, but exercising that choice may destabilise existing services, the BMA warns as the Department of Health announces changes to provision of elective hospital care from 1st April 2008 in England.
Dr Jonathan Fielden, Chairman of the BMA's Consultants Committee, says: "Patients should have real choice about their treatment. This is best led in consultation with their doctor and needs accurate information to help them make that decision. Whilst it is likely that most patients will choose their local hospital, because it is close to where they live and easier to get to, there is a risk that by opting for another provider some other local services would be cut back because of the loss of funding. This may mean, for example, that crucial emergency services would be threatened or that patients would need to travel further from their home than they do now for some conditions.
"I am also worried that it will be difficult for patients to make informed choices. We still have a long way to go in collecting and having access to accurate, reliable and meaningful data that enables patients, working with their doctors, to make full knowledgeable choices about their treatment."
"Finally the instability of local services will have major impacts on their ability to plan ahead, innovate for the future and train the doctors, nurses and other professionals the NHS requires."
Responding to the publication of "The Code of Practice for Promotion of NHS Services", Dr Fielden says: "Patients and doctors should have the best information available to aid their decisions on treatment. However, there is a major risk, as we see in other countries, that opening the floodgates to advertising may dilute the availability of accurate information rather than increase it.
"We are encouraged that the advertising standards authority will oversee the application of the code but it must ensure clear rules and the use of objective, substantiated information.
"We are however most concerned that this will divert desperately needed funds from patient care into the coffers of advertising agencies. Quality care should speak for itself, not be distorted by glamorous pictures and spin to meet the needs of an unhelpful extension of the market in health."