20/06/2014 07:17 BST | Updated 18/08/2014 06:59 BST

Give NHS Physiotherapy Patients the Same Rights as Those Who Go Private

If you are seeking treatment from a private physiotherapist the process is straight-forward.

You give them a call and arrange an appointment, which will generally be in the next few days.

It's a system that works well for patients, allowing them to be assessed and - where needed - treated at the earliest opportunity.

This is important because the sooner a physio can assess a problem, the better the chances of it being tackled successfully and permanently.

So why is it that in most parts of the country people can't just do the same with their local NHS physio service?

Patients in those areas must instead see their GP first and hope for a referral.

This means already-crowded GP waiting rooms are filled further with people who could just as easily be seen by a physiotherapist in the first instance.

When you consider that 12 per cent of GP consultations each year are about a musculoskeletal condition, such as back or neck pain, it's easy to see the potential benefits for the NHS as well as anyone trying to see their family doctor for something else.

I'm not talking about some fresh, new innovation here - physiotherapists were granted the legal right to treat patients without prior medical referral in 1977.

But in too many areas GPs remain the gatekeepers for access to NHS physio.

This makes little sense because where it is available, self-referral does all the things the NHS must do in the current climate: it saves money; it cuts waiting times and improves patient care; and it encourages people to take responsibility for their health in the future.

For instance, when it was introduced at Torbay and South Devon Health and Care NHS Trust, waiting times went from up to 10 weeks to inside three days for 90 per cent of patients.

This example was backed up by a paper published last month that looked at the introduction of self-referral in South Yorkshire.

The researchers found self-referral reduced costs by more than 30 per cent and cut the average waiting time for an assessment from 31 days to just 3.5 days.

The potential savings are enormous and simply cannot be overlooked at a time of such budgetary restraint in the NHS.

It shouldn't just be for musculoskeletal conditions, either.

A pilot scheme run by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy in 2012 found self-referral to be an effective way to get more women coming forward for treatment of continence issues.

Unsurprisingly, reducing the number of conversations an individual needed to have about their condition made them more likely to seek help.

And self-referral to physio can be an asset as the NHS takes on another of its great challenges: how we look after the 18 million people in the UK who have one or more long-term conditions, such as arthritis or COPD.

We need more community services that those people can access directly for advice, treatment and help with managing their own condition.

These services prevent people from having a flare-up of their condition that might require a hospital admission, so it is frustrating that many people across the country do not have access to them.

Unless you go private, of course.

We have to end this discrepancy to ensure physiotherapists working in the NHS can deliver the most effective services possible to patients when they need them.

Giving NHS patients the same opportunity to self-refer would save money for the NHS and ensure more people can live full and active lives.