Health Service Focus

22.09.16

Widening digital patient participation

Source: NHE Sep/Oct 16

The most transformative but difficult challenge for healthcare is delivering digital services on a par with other sectors for an increasingly tech-savvy population, writes NHS Digital’s director of programmes, James Hawkins.

The last decade has seen a momentous shift in the way that society interacts with online technology.  We now live in a world that expects digital choice and where using a smartphone is becoming as natural as driving a car. In today’s age, almost four in five of us routinely send and receive emails or use the internet to seek out goods and services. 

In contrast, for every one person in the population who will go online to seek health and wellbeing advice – such as to help them eat well, to exercise effectively, or to check their symptoms – one other person will not. 

What’s more, fewer than one in five of us carry out digital health transactions, such as booking a GP appointment online. 

Revolutionising patient connectivity 

At NHS Digital our job is to help change that statistic. Our challenge is to harness the power of information and technology to transform the health and care system so that patients can access it online with the convenience, security and confidence they experience daily when banking, shopping or travelling.       

The NHS e-Referral Service, which handles around 40,000 referrals every day – or  the equivalent of around 30 per minute –  is one example of how we are working to revolutionise the way the NHS connects with its patients. 

Like the NHS Spine, which was also redeveloped and brought in-house, the service is benefiting from new software and agile working. Together, these systems have already saved the NHS more than £70m, demonstrating how technology can help the service to make the best of its valuable resources in tandem with supporting patients and clinicians. 

Additional features are also being added in response to what GPs, hospital trusts and patients said they wanted from the NHS. This includes development of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which will enable GP clinical systems, secondary care provider systems and third-party applications to interact with the service directly, removing the need for users to swap between their applications and the professional user interface. 

Redeveloping NHS Choices 

However, probably the best known and most used service run by NHS Digital is the NHS Choices website, which last year attracted almost 600 million visits. Much has been achieved in creating what is now Europe’s biggest health website, but there is much more to do. Patients tell us that they want more: more access, more information and more advice. 

Currently the site content is mainly static and doesn’t enable patients to transact with the health system. This is going to change. We are working with the market to redevelop the site and to develop transactional services, linked to other trusted digital services throughout the NHS. This means we can ensure that the NHS fulfils the trust patients place in us, while capturing the innovation, creativity and value for money of the market for patients. 

We are now working to develop NHS.UK, a transformed NHS Choices, to provide the clear and simple content that will connect patients to quality services. We want to empower patients to take control of the prevention and active management of their health conditions and wellbeing, and provide them with a personalised digital experience. 

We also plan to introduce the signposting of apps into patient digital journeys. In other words, let patients know when a health app is available and could help them. We have already done this with mental health apps within NHS Choices. NHS.UK will play a pivotal role in helping the public join the dots, and throughout all of this work patients and their needs will remain the central consideration of our thinking. 

The only other concept that is equal to patient need is security. We must achieve the rock-solid security patients want and need to be confident in the transactions they undertake online, without compromising usability. However, in all of this we must remember that while we are without doubt an increasingly tech-savvy society, one size does not fit all. A significant minority of our population, which almost inevitably will include those most in need of health and care support, will not be engaged with the smartphone revolution. They must not be forgotten. 

This is why we are continuing our programme of widening digital participation so that the benefits of information and technology are available for all. Over the last three years, working with the Tinder Foundation, we have trained a quarter of a million people to use digital health resources and tools. 

As we continue to work to meet the momentous but exciting challenge of transforming digital services and choice for the public, patients, clinicians, the NHS and care services, our focus must not sway from understanding and supporting all people within our society. This will be the true measure of success.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: http://digital.nhs.uk/

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