Hospitals and trusts are abusing a government computer system that allows patients to book appointments online, doctors have claimed.
Managers are allegedly limiting the list of choices open to patients in order to meet waiting time targets and save money.
The “choose and book” computer system allows GPs to discuss treatment options with patients and book appointments with hospital specialists during consultations.
But certain treatment options have been disappearing from lists as primary care trusts try to restrict the number of patients having expensive procedures in private centres.
Hospitals are also removing outpatient clinics from the lists to ensure they meet waiting time targets by clearing their books before taking on new patients.
Doctors at the British Medical Association today criticised the practice for limiting pat ient choice.
Dr Richard Vautrey, of the association’s GP committee, told the Standard: “It is dishonest for the Government to keep talking about patient choice and expanding choice when primary care trusts and hospitals are hell-bent on limiting choice and gaming the system.”
Under the Government’s choice agenda patients are able to choose to be treated in an expanding list of local hospitals, private sector treatment centres and foundation hospitals.
But Dr Vautrey, who practises in Leeds, said nearby Bupa and Nuffield treatment centres had been removed from the online choose-and-book list after the local primary care trust said it could no longer afford for patients to be treated there.
Similar reports have been coming in from across the country, he said.
“The Department of Health is talking about patient choice but in reality the acute trusts and primary care trusts are practising demand management and limitation of choice because of financial problems and targets,” Dr Vautrey said.
“It is immensely frustrating for patients to find that a service that was open to them last week is not available now.
“Primary care trusts and hospitals are limiting the number of patients they treat to the the money they have got, without any regard for patients’ needs or choices.”
The Standard has revealed how hospitals are delaying treatments until after the beginning of the new financial year to avoid paying bills as they struggle to balance their books.
Many areas have also introduced “demand management systems”, where a panel of experts screens GP referrals to specialists to find cheaper alternatives for treatment, despite patients having already made their choice of preferred specialist.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “All trusts have to offer patients a choice of care in four locations, where a patient can be seen within 13 weeks when using choose and book.
"If a patient wishes to go to a hospital outside of the four offered by their GP then they are able to, providing it is clinically suitable to provide their care.”