15 December 2013
Last updated at 09:44 ET
Hospitals in England will have to ensure senior doctors and key diagnostic tests are available seven days a week under new plans.
The measures form part of a vision unveiled by NHS England to tackle higher death rates at weekends.
The changes, proposed by medical director Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, will be applied to urgent and emergency services over the next three years.
Sir Bruce said the case for change was clinically and morally “compelling”.
The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, said the case for seven-day services had been made and the focus needed to shift to delivering it.
Research suggests death rates are 16% higher for patients with emergency conditions admitted on Sundays compared with those admitted on Wednesdays.
Sir Bruce told BBC One’s Andrew Marr show “society has moved on and people expect more and more from services at the weekend”.
“It seems strange in many ways that we should start to wind down on a Friday afternoon and warm up on a Sunday… and [in the] meantime people are waiting for diagnosis and treatment,” he said.
He said that, historically, the NHS had been good at providing a five-day-a-week service but medicine had advanced.
Sir Bruce said junior doctors felt particularly stressed at weekends because of the complexity of cases, and often felt “unsupported”.
“We worry about that, not only because it may relate to the higher mortality rates, but also because it implies that we could be training the next generation of doctors better,” he said.
The proposals, which will be discussed by the board of NHS England on Tuesday, set out 10 new clinical standards for hospitals.
- All emergency admissions to be seen by a consultant within 14 hours
- Seven-day access to diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, ultrasound, MRI scans and pathology
- Patients in intensive care and other high dependency units to be reviewed by a consultant twice a day
- Weekend access to multi-disciplinary teams, which include expert nurses, physios and other support staff
Sir Bruce said organisations would need to be “absolutely transparent” about whether they were meeting these standards.
He said the changes would be contractually binding. It is possible a clause in consultants’ contracts stating organisations could not compel them to work at the weekend could be removed, he said.
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Anyone who has been in hospital will be aware of the change of pace the weekend brings.
Theatres lie empty, equipment is turned off and there are noticeably fewer staff around.
It is, therefore, no surprise that many believe a truly seven-day service is long overdue.
This review has provided a vision for what services could look like. But the big question now is how it can be implemented.
The NHS is in the middle of its biggest savings drive in history and there remains much work to be done to get hospital consultants fully signed up.
This promises to be just the start of a long process.
“These are pretty radical changes with some pretty hard levers behind them,” he said.
He had earlier said a system of incentives, rewards and sanctions would be built into contracts by 2016-17 to encourage hospitals to follow the new standards.
Breaches could cost hospitals up to 2.5% of their annual income of up to £500m, and they could face losing their right to use junior doctors.
Sir Bruce told the Marr show the changes would cost about 1.5-2% of the annual running costs of the hospital and said he was confident about finding money from other parts of the NHS to pay for the plans.
More consultants working weekends would stop inappropriate admissions and diagnoses would be speeded up, in turn helping hospitals run more efficiently financially, he said.
“We believe the arguments for this are absolutely compelling both clinically and morally,” he said.
Dean Royles, of NHS Employers, which represents hospitals, told BBC Breakfast the review “seals the deal” on the case for seven-day working.
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Our lives and health are totally dependent upon this vital service”
Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association Council, backed the changes, saying “there should be no calendar lottery when it comes to patient care”.
He said the BMA was in negotiations with NHS Employers and the government to find an “affordable, practical model for delivering this care” while safeguarding doctors’ work-life balance.
But Prof Chris Ham, of health think tank the Kings Fund, said there were concerns over funding because many hospitals were already struggling and financial pressures would only grow.
The Patients Association said: “Our lives and health are totally dependent upon this vital service and we look forward to its implementation with the least possible delay.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has commended the move, while shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said the government needed to clearly set out how it will be paid for.
The Welsh government has not ruled out seven-day working, while the Scottish administration has committed to having consultants in wards seven days a week.
A review in Northern Ireland earlier this year found disparities in out-of-hours hospital care, compared to weekdays, and said specialist consultant ward rounds and formal weekend handovers were needed.