• Digital uptake low despite NHS England efforts to drive online bookings
  • NHS England said last year 97 per cent of GP practices have online booking systems
  • Senior source tells HSJ “we need to stop kidding ourselves” about digital uptake
  • NHS England says progress being made is “encouraging”

HSJ analysis has found only 4 per cent of GP appointments are currently made online despite NHS England saying last year that 97 per cent of patients were served by practices offering digital bookings.

A projected 14 million GP appointments will be made or cancelled online in 2016, out of 340 million estimated total appointments, our analysis of official data collected by NHS Digital suggests.

The figure, extrapolated from official data and verified by NHS England, has increased from 9.5 million in 2015 (see box below for methodology).

Digital uptake remains low, despite a push by NHS England over the last few years. HSJ’s analysis has prompted calls for greater transparency around digital policy.

NHS England said last May that “over 55 million people”– 97 per cent of patients – were served by GP practices with online booking systems.

However, it did not publish data showing the take-up by patients. This information is contained in the patient online management information dataset on the NHS Digital website, but not on a patient-facing platform.

One senior official working on the digital agenda told HSJ far greater transparency around digital uptake was required if the NHS was to maximise the potential benefits of technology.

They said: “When the headlines say that GPs are offering online services to 97 per cent of patients, and the reality is that only 4 per cent of GP appointments are booked online, we need to stop kidding ourselves. Only then can we figure out how to how to improve it.”

NHS England defended its performance. A spokeswoman said: “It is encouraging that 14 million GP appointments were made online this year, a higher number than the 10.4 million online Ocado orders placed over the same period.

“Nearly 9 million patients are currently signed up to use this service and we expect the number of online appointment bookings to continue to rise as more people become aware this option is available.”

Multiple market sources told HSJ barriers to the uptake of online booking included the disincentive for GPs, already under increasing demand pressures, to give easy access to largely younger, digitally savvy patients at the expense of older patients.

Problems with overly bureaucratic registration services were also cited by both industry and NHS sources.

The deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s general practice committee, Richard Vautrey, told HSJ the figures reflected that “most patients still preferred to contact their practice by phone or attend their local surgery in person to speak to local reception staff, who they will often know, rather than using online services”.

“This is particularly the case for older patients, who are the main users of GP services. More widely there is a growing funding issue where we have too few GPs to offer enough appointments, whatever method of booking them is used,” he said.

GP systems supplier EMIS Group chief executive Chris Spencer cautioned that it was “only relatively recently” that the technology had been widely rolled out, so “there will be some element of consumer catch-up/lack of awareness”.

He added that cultural reasons within GP practices, such as ambivalence to release too many online appointments, and social issues such as the millions of “digitally disadvantaged” people who have little or no digital access”, were also factors.

Appointments booked or cancelled online in 2016

Date

Number of appointments booked or cancelled online 

March 2015

671,000

June 2015

819,144

July 2015

890,480

Three month average

793,541

Extrapolated for 2015 total (average multiplied by 12)

9,522,496

 

 

March 2016

1,351,533

June 2016

1,170,688

July 2016

982,203

Three month average

1,168,141

Extrapolated for 2016 total (average multiplied by 12)

14,017,696

Source: NHS Digital

 

Methodology

The estimates for online uptake figures have been extrapolated from official data. Sessional variations and other factors could impact the data but the analysis was presented to NHS England before publication and viewed as a fair reflection based on available data.