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Covid-19 pandemic accelerates work on NHS App

The coronavirus health crisis has sped up work to integrate online consultations in the NHS App, exceeding roll-out targets and driving uptake

Online GP consultations are now available to 20 million patients across the country, as the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has fast-tracked the NHS’s roll-out plans.

The health service was originally aiming to have rolled out online consultations through the NHS App to 1,200 GP practices by the end of June 2020, but due to increased demand during the pandemic, work accelerated rapidly, so by 30 April 2020, more than 2,200 practices were able to use online consultations.

In a blog post, Tracy Higgs, product lead for online consultations in the NHS App, said making online consultations available was a “major focus” for her team before the pandemic, but coronavirus had led to work speeding up rapidly.

The NHS has moved towards a “total triage” model, where every patient should be triaged before getting an appointment or being directed to other healthcare services.

“Online consultation technology is crucial in helping quickly achieve total triage while preserving good standards of care – and due to their ease of use, apps like the NHS App are an idea platform for driving the rapid adoption of this technology,” Higgs wrote in the blog post.

Work to include online consultations has been going on for some time. Since the app’s inception, video consultations have been touted as a key component, and in 2019, NHS England and NHS Digital conducted market research and a supplier analysis before choosing eConsult, which  provides an online, form-based triaging system, to run a proof of concept.

“We wanted to see what the architecture could look like for implementing online consultations within the NHS App,” said Higgs. “We followed this up by going live with a pilot of eight practices from November 2019 to January 2020 using eConsult, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. This provided the foundation for the national roll-out.”

Although eConsult is the only online consultations supplier in the app currently, there are plans in place to integrate more suppliers and products, Higgs said, adding that the goal is for “an even larger number of patients” to be able to ask for help and advice through online services.

The roll-out of the NHS App first began in January 2019, and in June 2019, NHSX CEO Matthew Gould announced that instead of the plans for the NHS to be an “all-singing and all-dancing” front door to the NHS as previously planned, the app would instead be kept “thin” and let suppliers use the platform “to come up with brilliant features on top”.

Higgs said this meant people accessing online consultations in the app “have a consistent user interface through which we can simplify and improve their user journeys, no matter which supplier their GP practice uses”.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to NHS Digital showing that the organisation has the capability to respond quickly and scale up services at unprecedented speed. In an interview with Computer Weekly in April, NHS Digital CEO Sarah Wilkinson said it had been forced to make quick decisions on things it might previously have prevaricated over for days, weeks or months.

“We’ve reached a new plateau where there’s a new level of understanding of the extent to which these tools can be used, and where they can be deployed,” she said. 

This has also been the case when it comes to use of the NHS App, which has also seen a huge increase in users and downloads during the pandemic. In March 2020, there was a 111% increase in uptake, compared with the previous month, according to NHS Digital figures.

“People try things that previously they would have worried about simply because they weren’t standard practice,” said Wilkinson.

“I think there has been a sort of sense in the system that somehow it wasn’t quite right not to be in the room with your patient, and that nobody wants to break ranks and create a new modus operandi for how that kind of interaction should work.”

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