GPs will be required to give patients the option to travel further for healthcare or go to a private alternative under plans to cut NHS waiting times.
Doctors will have to offer up to five healthcare providers when making referrals, allowing people to select their preference using the NHS app or website.
The options will be filtered by distance, waiting times and the quality of care, in the expansion of the app downloaded by millions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said “empowering” patients to select where they go will reduce the record-high number of people awaiting treatment in England – which rose to 7.3 million last month.
But the British Medical Association said the staffing crisis, not a lack of options, is stopping people being seen in good time and “this is not an answer to the huge waiting lists we face”.
Dr Kieran Sharrock, acting chair of the BMA England GP committee said: “While we agree that patients should be at the centre of decision-making about their care, doctors working in both primary and secondary care are acutely aware that our patients just want to be seen in good time and close to home.
“It is long waiting lists, due to the long-term undervaluing of NHS staff and poor workforce planning, that are preventing this from happening, not a lack of patient choice.
“This is not an answer to the huge waiting lists we face.”
He added that policy could increase the workload of already under-pressure GPs without additional resources, and expressed concern for “digitally marginalised” patients who don’t have a smart phone.
“There are no shortcuts here – in order to make real progress, the government must focus its efforts on addressing the workforce crisis across the NHS, investing in health and appropriately valuing staff.
“That is the only way to tackle the record-breaking backlog and help patients who are desperate to be treated swiftly and close to home.”
The policy comes as hospitals brace themselves for three more days of junior doctor strikes next month, with the BMA warning industrial action will last all summer if the government doesn’t improve its pay offer.
A four-day strike in April led to nearly 200,000 appointments and operations being cancelled. adding to the challenge of reducing the NHS backlog.
The government said patients already have a right to choose where they are treated but it is hoped doctors being required to give alternatives will increase usage.
Only one in 10 patients currently exercises this right but research shows the choice can cut three months off waiting times, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Patients would not have to pay, with the NHS covering any private healthcare provider chosen. Low-income patients could receive help with travel costs under an existing scheme.
Announcing the new policy Mr Sunak said: “Our aim is to create an NHS built around patients, where everyone has more control over the care they receive, wherever they live or whatever their health needs are.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay claimed the new policies could help “wipe months off” waiting times.
Royal College of GPs chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne said making better use of technology and giving patients more choice are moves “worth exploring”.
But she said the concept of giving patients choice over where they access hospital care “is not new” and risks “adding to workload in general practice, at a time when we need bureaucratic burdens to be cut”.
She added: “We also need to be realistic with our patients, given current NHS backlogs, as to what is possible – particularly in terms of waiting times for treatment – so that this new system does not create false expectations.”
The policy was also criticised by opposition MPs.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said: “Rishi Sunak is failing on his pledges to cut NHS waiting lists, recruit the NHS staff we need, and fix crumbling hospitals.
“This latest gimmick will do nothing to change the fact that under the Conservatives, far too many patients are waiting far too long for the treatment they need.”