Legal rights for patients demanded

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 23 November 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1284

The patient's charter falls short of giving patients real rights in terms of access to health care, quality of treatment, and genuine choice, according to the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales, which launched its own manifesto for patients this week.

The patients' agenda proposes a set of rights that are not included in the patient's charter. It criticises the charter for offering only expectations of care; instead it proposes rights for patients that will be backed up by an independent health rights commission with statutory powers.

Proposals in the agenda include an automatic right to an explanation if a patient is removed from or refused access to a general practitioner's list; the right to be accommodated in a single sex ward if preferred, without delaying treatment by more than four weeks; and the right to chose a hospital and consultant using meaningful information. The right to free eye tests and dental check ups is also included.

Mr Jim Johnson, a vascular surgeon and chairman of the BMA's Central Consultants and Specialists Committee, said that the proposals were “unrealistic” without a lot more funding. He was also sceptical about whether such rights could be enforced by a body that had no control over funding of the health service. However, he did agree that the existing patient's charter is unsatisfactory. “The charter was designed to give the impression of delivering care without in fact delivering very much,” he said.

Philip Hunt, director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, acknowledged most of the aims of the agenda as laudable while pointing out that both patients and patients' organisations have a part to play. He said: “This agenda would have more credibility if it said more about the right we have to expect patients not to abuse the service or make unnecessary calls on it.”

Another of the suggested rights is to have an experienced accident and emergency doctor on duty or available on site at all times to safeguard the quality of emergency treatment. On this Mr Hunt commented: “If community health councils were supportive of mergers of A&E [accident and emergency] departments then it would be more likely that such an aim could be achieved.”

Toby Harris, director of the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales, defended the patients' agenda, saying that it was designed to redress the balance of power between the medical profession and the patients. He said: “We have identified issues that are important to patients, and I believe in a modern health service we should be able to achieve this agenda.”—KATHRYN GODFREY, medical journalist, London


Patients are demanding rights backed up by law


  • * The Patients Association this week called for an end to mixed wards in the NHS. The organisation is commissioning research into the cost of closing all mixed wards.

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