Transparency the key to empowering consumers

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The Productivity Commission has recommended more power for consumers in choosing their healthcare providers.

The federal government's main advisory body on economic reform has released its report on reforms to human services.

The recommendations cover a range of services, including end-of-life care, publicly-funded dental services and social housing.

On referred health services, the Productivity Commission has recommended removing barriers to patient choice.

"A combination of rules and common practices limit patients’ choice of healthcare provider when they receive a referral or a diagnostic request," it says. "These barriers to choice should be removed."

It says patients are often given no choice but to attend a public outpatient clinic nearest their home. It adds the issue is complicated by the common misconception among patients and providers that a referral to a named specialist or allied health professional, or branded diagnostic request form, cannot be accepted by an alternative suitably qualified provided.

"As a result, specialists sometimes refuse to see a patient because a different specialist is named in the referral, and the patient has to contact their GP’s office to request that the name in the referral is changed," it says.

"These restrictions limit choice without delivering any significant benefit for either the patient or the community more generally," it says, recommending all patients should be given the opportunity to choose the provider that best meets their need, based on location, performance, waiting time and out-of-pocket costs.

It recommends governments should:

  • direct public outpatient clinics to accept any patient with a relevant referral, regardless of where they live;
  • amend referral regulations to make it clearer patients can choose their private specialist;
  • require a clear patient advisory statement on all referrals and diagnostic requests confirming the right of patients to go to an alternative provider to any named; and,
  • work with professional bodies to develop best-practice guidelines on how to support patient choice.

According to the report, "Overseas studies have shown that greater patient GP choice, together with public information to support choice, can lead to better clinical outcomes — including fewer deaths — because it encourages some patients to seek out higher-performing hospitals and importantly prompts service providers to move closer to best practice among their peers."

It goes on to recommend more transparency on the performance of hospitals and providers, including in relation to clinical outcomes and costs, saying it would more readily enable comparisons.