Health Secretary Alan Johnson officially opened the £13.4m state-of-the-art new St Margaret's community hospital.

He was given a guided tour of the Epping Forest Unit, a major redevelopment of the St Margaret's Hospital site, in Epping, and chatted to patients and staff.

Unveiling a commemorative plaque, Mr Johnson told an audience of local dignitaries that the facility is an excellent example of how the NHS has adapted to meet the changing needs of patients over the last 60 years.

He told the Guardian: "It's superb here, you would think you're in a spa resort as opposed to a hospital. It really is leading the way in many in areas."

He said it would be very beneficial for elderly patients, and added: "It's locally based which means people don't have to travel to London, or to the acute sector. It's based in this community for the needs of this community."

Marjorie Thorp, 87, from Waltham Abbey - who was admitted to the hospital after she collapsed at home - told Mr Johnson she was very impressed with the standard of care she had received.

She said she had concerns after reading bad reports on the NHS, but vowed: "I've told my family how good everybody's been, it's incredible, so once they start knocking the NHS again I'll have something to say."

Mr Johnson was also shown round the baby massage service, and spoke to parents including Luwam Scorer and baby daughter Lyia, Claire-Marie Boyne and five-month-old Mia-Rose, and Rene Brand and five-month-old son Zack Player.

Mrs Boyne, from Epping, said: "I think we are all first-time mums and the help and support we've had here has been brilliant."

The Private Finance Initiative-funded unit, which opened in July last year, has three 22-bed wards. One specialises in stroke services and another in rehabilitation, particularly for people coming out of Princess Alexandra Hospital, in Harlow, and also for those admitted directly from the community.

It also offers speech and language therapy, podiatry, has a physiotherapy gym, a day unit and a therapy pool.

West Essex Primary Care Trust chief executive Aidan Thomas said: "What we have here is cutting edge. It's a model for developments elsewhere in the NHS."

Epping Forest District Council leader Di Collins - chairman of the former Epping Forest Primary Care Trust - said: "I think it's a huge improvement for the community and I'm very proud of it."