Introduction of freedom of choice for hospital outpatient care in Portugal: Implications and results of the 2016 reform

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In Portugal, the National Health Service (NHS) assures universal access to medical treatment and care that is free at the point of delivery - except for relatively small user charges. Freedom of choice is limited and competition between the public and the private sectors is almost non-existent. In May 2016, the Ministry of Health introduced a new law that facilitates the referral of NHS users from primary healthcare units to outpatient consultations in NHS hospitals outside of the referral area. However, for inpatient care, patients are still bound to receive treatment within their referral area, which is determined by place of residence. The aim of the reform was to provide a timelier response to citizens' health needs and to increase efficiency. According to preliminary data from June 2016 to May 2017, 10.6% of all outpatient referrals from NHS primary health care units were made to an NHS hospital out of the referral area, with the highest proportion in the Lisbon (15.8%) region. In general, median waiting time for first outpatient consultation increased after the introduction of choice in the five specialties with the highest proportions of out-of-area referrals - but it reduced in two departments with the longest waiting times prior to the reform. The reform constitutes a major change to the relationship between NHS hospitals, with foreseeable consequences in hospital funding and the patients' perception of hospital quality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1203-1207
JournalHealth Policy
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • Health systems
  • Outpatient care
  • Patient choice
  • Portugal

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being

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