Will more choice help us through the maze?

Patients will want to take the path that leads them to the healthcare that they want, at a time when

Choice is often touted as a panacea. If you give people the power to choose you make them responsible for their own destiny rather than treating them like commodities on a conveyor belt.

But what use is having an array of options if you don't understand the consequences of your selection? Healthcare, and the bureaucracy that shapes it, changes swiftly and it takes an astute, almost abnormally interested individual to keep track of the various bodies operating in one's local NHS, let alone at national level. There are primary care trusts, hospital trusts, community trusts, foundation trusts - and most recently, "super surgeries", or polyclinics, which are being built in certain areas to give patients far greater access to healthcare services.

Alongside all of these alternatives, pharmacies are being recommended as places for patients to go to seek medical help for what they perceive are minor problems. The press that surrounds the promotion of pharmacies is mixed: some say the advice given is inadequate, others concur that another avenue for people to obtain healthcare guidance can only be a good thing.

Of course, it's a no-brainer that greater access to healthcare is beneficial, especially in overcrowded or remote areas. But how are members of the public meant to know which source of medical advice is most appropriate for them? Joe and Jane Public may have an inkling as to what constitutes "primary" care, but as the boundaries change and services that used to be hospital-based are offered in new settings, confusion is likely to result in them resorting to visiting the most familiar setting: the GP surgery - if they can get an appointment - or, at the weekend and evenings, A&E. The NHS Direct helpline earns praise and criticism, with negative comments along the lines of, "They just told me to see my GP", to positive accounts of lives being saved thanks to timely advice being dispensed.

Seeing a door marked “consulting area” in a pharmacy helps to embed the idea that asking advice is expected, is welcome

There is no obvious consistency when it comes to the healthcare facilities in area A or B. Why should patients know that a pharmacy is linked to the local GP practice, which in turn falls under the aegis of the primary care trust (PCT)? They may view the pharmacy solely as somewhere to pick up some paracetamol and toiletries, failing to appreciate that the pharmacist can offer far more than a swift exchange of prescription docket for packets of pills and ointments.

Indeed, if patients have only ever used their pharmacist as a post-GP stop-off to collect new medication, they need to be made aware that the professionals behind the counter can provide a range of guidance. Some pharmacies - the major chains - have installed quiet booths within which consultations can take place away from the other shoppers. Seeing a door marked "consulting area" in a pharmacy helps to embed the idea that asking advice is expected, is welcome, and is not an added extra that interrupts the flow of pharmacy life.

However, while some patients will feel confident enough to seek advice from their pharmacist, either because they trust them or are aware that dispensing advice is the done thing, others prefer the continuity afforded them through their GP. The same principle applies when considering the move to polyclinics. People value the connections they cultivate with various health professionals. These relationships are intimate and are not to be underestimated, as they can drive individuals towards, or away from, particular sources of healthcare.

That said, the problem remains that, when someone approaches a pharmacist for advice, they are perhaps relying on diagnostic skills being better than the profession demands. This is not to denigrate the pharmacist in any way, but pharmacists lack the medical training and records that GPs have at their fingertips, so is it not imperative that the two professions work closely to deal with patients in a mutually accepted, consistent manner, referring to each other when necessary?

Where there are numerous healthcare options available, all parties must collaborate, not compete. This will help make it obvious to the layman or woman that these seemingly disparate parts of NHS healthcare fall under one umbrella, that they communicate, access common information (that is safely and accurately maintained) and are working together to drive up health standards by putting patients at the centre of all decisions. Only when all the potential participants in a person's quest to achieve good health are integrated can people be successfully guided through the maze of options available to them. Who does what, where, why, and how, will become obvious through good practice.

It doesn’t matter to patients that a procedure once carried out in a hospital outpatients department is now taken care of at their local GP practice

The NHS, an unquestionably mammoth, dynamic organisation, will seldom be transparent to the average patient but, if further entry points are introduced to the system that merely serve to compound confusion, this would be a missed opportunity to truly widen access. Yes, in the short term, seven-days-a-week health centres will benefit those who cannot take time off work to see their GP, or who cannot wait the best part of a day to have a routine blood test carried out. However, there will be gaps or duplications in commissioning and priorities that would be shamefully senseless in an environment where money is tight and the ultimate goal of high-quality patient care is common.

It doesn't matter to patients that a procedure once carried out in a hospital outpatients department is now taken care of at their local GP practice. No one bothers - and neither should they - that funding for a health check comes from primary, rather than secondary care coffers. As far as the taxpayer is concerned, they are paying for the lot.

People will take the path that gives them what they need when they need it. If that means going to A&E because their GP practice has unacceptably lengthy waiting times, so be it. It doesn't have to be that way but patients may not know any different and, until they do (which is the responsibility of NHS providers), change may be hard fought and "choice" may simply equate to confusion.

Joy Persaud is a freelance journalist and can be reached here.