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NHS suspends e-Referral hospital booking system two days after launch

The NHS temporarily withdrew its e-Referral service due to performance problems shortly after its launch, when it went live with 33 known issues

The NHS has temporarily suspended its e-Referral system for booking NHS hospital appointments in England, just two days after going live.

The e-Referral service replaces the £356m Choose and Book system, first introduced in 2004. It allows patients referred by their GP for an outpatient appointment to choose the date and time, and the venue, if several providers are available.

The system launched on Monday 15 June 2015, despite having 33 unresolved issues with the online software, and following a warning that it was going live without following correct government digital guidelines.

After performance problems yesterday and overnight, the system was withdrawn from service. “Due to issues experienced overnight the NHS e-Referral Service is unavailable until further notice while essential maintenance is performed,” said a statement from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which runs the system.

“If you have local business continuity processes available, we recommend that you consider invoking them. We are working hard to resolve these issues as quickly as possible and to keep disruption to a minimum. We apologise for the disruption caused to some users and thank everyone for their patience.”

GDS assessors criticise beta testing

Officially, the e-Referral service is in its “beta” testing phase, according to Government Digital Service (GDS) standards. The system passed its latest assessment in May, but the GDS assessors were critical of e-Referral effectively going live without a formal beta stage. The GDS assessors said this increased the risk of problems.

Read more about the NHS e-Referral hospital booking service

“The risk and impact of failure, given the complexity and scale of the system, are the precise reasons why a beta phase is recommended for new digital services, rather than a 'big bang' launch,” said the GDS assessment report.

The predecessor to e-Referral, Choose and Book, handled 13.8 million transactions a year, according to the Gov.uk performance dashboard, with a relatively steady usage – so it is unlikely the new system would have been affected by unexpected spikes in demand.

Update: 1.00pm 17 June 2015

The HSCIC has issued an update on the e-Referral problems: "HSCIC is completing the final stage of testing a number of fixes to the NHS e-Referrals service. It is hoped that the service will be available again later today." 

Update: 3.00pm 17 June 2015

The HSCIC announced that the e-Referral service is now available again. No further details were provided about the cause of the problems. 

Read more on Healthcare and NHS IT

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