Editorial Assistant, European Medical Journal
The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is set to introduce major changes to the NHS Choices website in the following months, after an increased demand by patients for the website to be digitally revolutionised into a more easily accessible and useful platform.
Speaking at the Digital Health Technology show in London on Wednesday 8th March, 2017 and setting the scene surrounding the historical problems of digitisation within the NHS was Dr Shafi Ahmed, Director of Medical Realities and Virtual Surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, London, UK, who spoke broadly about the barriers with innovation and implantation within the health service. There are “problems of translation”, he suggested, “we have great ideas from various partners, innovators, accelerators that come to us and we do not support them well enough and work out how we can use that on a day-to-day basis.” He argues, however, that this is now changing.
Juliet Bauer, recently appointed NHS Director of Digital Experience, UK, was then introduced. She began by discussing her own positive experiences within the NHS and her personal reasons behind moving from the private to public sector of healthcare. She discussed her own experiences of working in digital start-ups, the issues of translation when it came to working with the NHS, and how her current role now involves tackling this huge problem which has surrounded the digital NHS for many years.
Currently £4.2 billion has been allocated to help develop the digitisation of the NHS.1 The current programme will implement exciting new changes focussing on ten key areas; inside these key areas will be 33 programmes. Included in these developments will be areas focussing on Patient Engagement: Self-Care and Prevention, and Urgent and Emergency Care, which will look at transforming problems in general practice, data management, infrastructure, oversight, public trust and security, and interoperability. By tackling these problems, the digital NHS can work towards the goal of significantly improving the impact on health outcomes and overall patient experience online. In other words, revolutionising digital healthcare in the NHS would allow patients to take care of their own health.
Why is this so important? Why has so much money been given by the Treasury to assist in digitising the NHS? Well firstly, the NHS.UK website is visited 30–50 million times every month; in other words, over half the UK population visit the NHS looking for help; 70% of those employing the website use their mobile phone to access the site, which means the NHS needs to fund development of a mobile-friendly website as well as a computer-accessed website. Furthermore, 1 in 20 Google searches are health-related. The demand for a better way to access health-related information while ensuring the content is of the highest quality is also important. For example, if the NHS fails to provide enough extensive information or tools regarding specific symptoms, individuals may rely on less accurate health information from other medical websites and therefore receive inaccurate diagnoses or advice. By re-platforming the current content, the NHS would be easier to navigate and would be more action and service-based. For example, the website could eventually expand to give patients access to their own patient history, local healthcare teams and services, their own personal healthcare budget, alerts indicating when they have an appointment, booking an appointment, information on current prescriptions and medicines, and repeat prescription forms.
But do people want this change? Extensive user research appears to indicate so. According to Bauer, patients’ basic expectations are for the NHS to provide such services. The digitisation of many different markets over the past decade, such as online banking, online shopping, and self-service scanners, have had a tremendous impact on people’s daily lives and experience online and in public; people therefore expect similar services from the healthcare system. Consensus indicted that people wanted to avoid time on the phone, reduce the amount of paper waste, time, and hassle. Users also wanted services that encouraged preventative actions such as tools or applications to help keep check on symptoms or cholesterol for example. Furthermore, patients responded positively to the actions of a more efficient way to update personal information online, and just generally having access to all medical records and being able to control and be responsible for that. Overall there was an agreement that the current experience using the NHS website could be better and there was an overwhelmingly positive response to the changes which will eventually be implemented.
The main concerns about the upcoming changes focus on the safety and security of patient information, who can access it, and how to make sure everyone who is not currently using online resources takes part. The initial changes are likely to take some time however the end of March will see the first step towards creating a digital NHS in the form of NHS tools, which has been shown to be technically safe and secure. The next stages will be working alongside technical experts and partners who the NHS trust to implement better changes to the current digital NHS including discussions with Apple Inc. (California, USA) to increase user experience and ensure that patients get access to safe and trusted health websites.
To those who may still be having doubts, Bauer presented the audience with the words of Robert Wachter: “To those who wonder whether the NHS can afford this ambitious effort to digitise in today’s environment, the answer is clear. The one thing the NHS cannot afford to do is to remain a largely non-digital system. It’s time to get on with it.”1
- Department of Health. Independent report: Making IT work: harnessing the power of health information technology to improve care in England. 2016. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/using-information-technology-to-improve-the-nhs/making-it-work-harnessing-the-power-of-health-information-technology-to-improve-care-in-england. Last accessed: 24 March 2017.
- Bauer J. NHS England Blog: From private to public sector – Juliet Bauer. 2016. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/juliet-bauer/. Last accessed: 24 March 2017.