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Your choices in the NHS

Choosing a hospital

If you need to go to hospital to see a specialist, you have the right to choose which hospital you're referred to by your GP.

This legal right lets you choose from any hospital offering a suitable treatment that meets NHS standards and costs.

You also have the right to choose which consultant-led team, or clinically appropriate team led by a named healthcare professional, will be in charge of your treatment for your first appointment at the hospital. You will be seen by the consultant or by a doctor who works with the consultant in their team. Get tips on how to choose a consultant.

There are some healthcare services where you cannot make choices. These are set out in the box on the right. 

The hospital you choose for your first outpatient appointment is most likely the same place you'll receive treatment, should you need it. Evidence shows that if you choose a hospital where you feel comfortable and confident, you're likely to improve both the result of your treatment and your experience while you're in hospital. 

You should therefore think about any treatment that could follow on when your GP refers you. For example, if you expect to be prescribed a simple course of medication, your choice of hospital may be based largely on convenience, such as how far away the hospital is, waiting times and parking facilities.

If you're likely to need an operation, such as a hip replacement, your choice will probably be based on other factors. Clinical ratings such as infection and mortality rates may be more important, especially if results vary significantly between hospitals. You should choose your hospital according to what's most important to you.

Choosing the hospital that's best for you is a personal decision. Discuss your choice with your GP before they refer you to a specialist. If you don't wish to make a decision there and then, you can take away information about hospitals and decide later. 


Once I've made my choice, how do I book a hospital appointment?

If your GP refers you through the NHS e-Referral Service, you'll be given a password and reference number that allows you to book your appointment online or over the phone. The NHS e-Referral Service appointments line is open:

  • Monday to Friday                                8am-8pm
  • Weekends and bank holidays        8am-4pm
  • Christmas Day                                   closed

Phone: 0345 608 8888 or go to NHS e-Referral Service to book your appointment online.


If you're not happy with your first outpatient appointment, you could ask your GP for a new referral. However, this may delay any treatment you need, as you will have to go through the 18-week waiting time period once more.

If your GP is not already using the e-Referral Service for your referral, you can ask them to do so. If your GP refuses to use the e-Referral Service, you should speak to your local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). Find your local CCG.

If you feel that you have not been offered a choice of hospital or consultant-led team within hospitals, discuss this with your GP first. If you are still unhappy that you have not been offered choices, you can make a complaint to your local CCG.  

If you are unhappy with the decision made by your CCG, you have the right to complain to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Visit or call the helpline: 0345 015 4033.

Your local Healthwatch, the consumer champion in health and social care, can also signpost you to information on local services.

How far should I travel?

How far you have to travel to the hospital may be important if you have to spend time in hospital or you need to return to the same hospital often.

This doesn't mean that you should choose a local hospital if its results are poor. But you may not want to go to a hospital hundreds of miles away if it will stop you seeing your friends and family for a long time, or if you have to travel there frequently.

On the other hand, you may want to travel further if you can be treated more quickly. For example, an amateur sportsman who needs a ligament in his knee repaired may be prepared to travel to the other end of the country if it means he can receive the best treatment quickly.

Expect to make compromises to find the right balance between convenience and clinical results. If you're thinking of choosing a hospital that's far away, talk to your friends and family to allow them to plan. 


Can I get help with travel costs?

You may be entitled to help with your travel costs through the Healthcare Travel Cost Scheme (HTCS) if you are referred to a specialist care appointment by a GP or another professional at a location that is different to where you were referred from and receive either Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance or Pension Credit Guarantee Credit, or if you're named on an NHS tax exemption certificate or qualify under the NHS Low Income Scheme (LIS).

For information on travel subsidies and policies in the NHS, go to the sections on Help with health costs and The NHS in England.

Page last reviewed: 07/03/2014

Next review due: 07/03/2016

Making your choice checklist

1. Know your choices
Discuss your options with your GP
2. Find and compare hospitals
Choose according to what matters most to you, and compare hospitals to make your choice 
3. Talk about it
Discuss your choices with family or friends
4. Book an appointment
Contact your GP practice, or access NHS e-Referral Service online or by phone on 0345 608 8888


Services excluded from choice

You cannot choose:

  • services where speed of access to diagnosis and treatment is particularly important, such as emergency and urgent care
  • cancer services, which are subject to a two-week maximum waiting time
  • maternity services
  • public health services commissioned by local authorities


Download the NHS Choice Framework and find out where you have the legal right to choice in the NHS.


Disabled people in hospital

Get tips and advice on how to make arrangements if you are disabled and you need hospital treatment, including information for carers

Your outpatient appointment

Find out what happens on the day of your hospital outpatient appointment

GP referrals

Find out how to get a GP referral, including tips on other services you may access through your GP

Preparing for hospital

A nurse describes what to pack if you're going into hospital, and what facilities inpatients and their visitors can expect.

Media last reviewed: 14/07/2015

Next review due: 14/07/2017