Is greater patient choice consistent with equity? The case of the English NHS

J Health Serv Res Policy. 2006 Jul;11(3):162-6. doi: 10.1258/135581906777641668.


There are substantial inequities within the current National Health Service (NHS), with people in lower socioeconomic groups (SEGs) using a wide range of services less relative to their needs than people in higher SEGs. These inequities are likely to arise due to factors on both the demand and the supply side of the system. On the demand side, they could arise from differences in patients' beliefs, knowledge, costs, resources and capabilities. On the supply side, professional beliefs and attitudes, and risk selection or cream-skimming by providers may result in inequities. This paper discusses whether these factors are at play within the English NHS and analyses whether current policy to extend patient choice of provider is likely to reduce or increase these inequities. It shows that extending patient choice may leave unchanged inequity due to differences in health beliefs (because choice does not affect these directly), increase inequity due to unequal resources (because patients may have to travel further), and decrease inequity due to unequal capabilities (because the poor will have access to a new and, for them a more effective, source of leverage over health service professionals). On the supply side, there will be little change. The paper then discusses policy options for dealing with factors that contribute to greater inequity on the demand side. It proposes a package of supported choice whereby individuals from lower SEGs would receive assistance in making choices, including an identified key worker to act as patient care adviser and help with transport costs. The paper concludes that policies for extending patient choice can enhance equity--so long as they are properly designed.

MeSH terms

  • Choice Behavior*
  • England
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Humans
  • Patient Participation*
  • Social Class
  • State Medicine / organization & administration*