Moves to force hospitals to provide routine surgery and scans over weekends are expected to accelerate this week when NHS medical chiefs outline policies to ensure more seven-day cover.
GPs will also be expected to open surgeries for appointments rather than leaving patients to wait or use out-of-hours services.
Moves towards 24/7 healthcare have been trailed for some time but Sir Bruce Keogh, one of its chief proponents, now holds the purse strings as medical director of the NHS commissioning board, which determines how health service funds are spent.
Keogh has told the Sunday Times that the system in use has been based around providing a good working environment for those that work in the health service but that isn’t necessarily matched with what those who want services have.
“If you are an elderly person who struggles to get to the hospital, why does your niece, nephew, son or daughter have to take a day or a half day off work to take you to and from the hospital for the convenience of the people who are running it? It seems strange in a way that you cannot go to a clinic at the weekend, you cannot have your day case surgery at the weekend when the rest of the commercial world is going in a different direction. Weekend closures of theatres and clinics were a waste of NHS funds. We have got outpatient departments that are empty, operating theatres that lie fallow”, he added.
Apart from the consumer aspect of the service, health chiefs have been worried by evidence that patients admitted to hospitals for emergency treatment at weekends are nearly 10% more likely to die than those admitted during the week.
But doctors have warned against a blanket approach, saying patients who use weekend services might be more likely to be seriously ill in the first place. They argue the extra staffing needed for such a change nationally would be too expensive at a time when some services are already under threat.
The British Medical Association called for a flexible approach. “There are some clinics that are already providing for a weekend service. What works for one might not work for another. It will be important to learn from best practice. We have been discussing this for some time. As doctors, of course we want to improve services we offer patients but there has to be investment in resources that underpin that,” said a spokeswoman.
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