, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp 195-203
Date: 06 Aug 2012

Is patient choice an effective mechanism to reduce waiting times?

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Abstract

In many countries, patient choice is a routine part of the normal healthcare system. However, many choice initiatives in secondary care are part of policies aimed at reducing waiting times. This article provides evidence on the effectiveness of patient choice as a mechanism to reduce waiting times within a metropolitan area. The London Patient Choice Project was a large-scale pilot offering patients on hospital waiting lists a choice of alternative hospitals with shorter waiting times. A total of 22 500 patients were offered choice and 15 000 accepted. The acceptance rate of 66% was very high by international standards. In this article we address two questions. First, did the introduction of choice significantly reduce waiting times in London relative to the rest of the country where there was no choice? Second, how were the waiting times of London patients not offered choice affected by the choice regime? We examine the evidence on these issues for one specialty, orthopaedics. A difference-in-difference analysis is used to compare waiting times for hospitals within London before and after the introduction of choice. Although there was a small but significant reduction in waiting times in London relative to other areas where there was no patient choice, the main effect of the choice regime was to produce convergence of mean waiting times within London. Convergence was achieved by bringing down waiting times at the hospitals with high waiting times to the levels that prevailed in hospitals with low waiting times. This represented a clear improvement in equity of access, an important objective of the English National Health Service.