Online Patient Services And The Danger Of Digital Native Naivety

30/08/2016 13:14 | Updated 30 August 2016

More than 95% of GP surgeries in England now offer online patient services, including appointment booking, repeat prescription ordering, and access to test results. Indeed, as of April this year all GPs - in line with a major drive from NHS England - must provide their patients with online access to information held in their GP record.

It really is a significant milestone for patient power, particularly given that in December 2014, just one fifth of us had online access to our medical records.

For me, the true benefit of online services and records access is that that it enables patients to become partners in their own healthcare. Those with long term illnesses in particular will be better able to monitor their condition, especially as the use of health wearables becomes more commonplace. Given that nearly three million of us are expected to have at least three long-term medical conditions by 2018, it is a huge step forward for the nation's health.

It could also save our hard-pressed NHS money. Reducing the number of calls to surgeries and cutting unnecessary appointments are among the benefits estimated to achieve cost savings of around £5 billion over the next decade if online services are widely adopted.

We are already seeing the health, efficiency and cost benefits of making such services more readily available. One practice in Buckingham recently reported GPs are saving up to 40 days a year on calls and appointments to discuss test results as a result of its improved online services.

I am a firm believer that patients should be true partners in their healthcare, and that online services have a major role to play in supporting that partnership, so these statistics are heartening.

Encouraging as these numbers are, however, some other figures have given me pause for thought as we make online patient services a reality.

Back in 2015, an organization called the Tinder Foundation found that 12.6 million people in the UK lacked basic digital skills and that 5.3 million adults had never used the internet. Making a service available is only ever one part of the equation. That service needs to be understood and made simple to use for it to be a success.

The Tinder report and similar research straddling healthcare needs and provision, all pointed towards one thing. Those who need the NHS most, i.e. those with significant health and social care needs, are also those who are least likely to be digital fact, many will rarely have even ventured online. Research suggests that a third of those with registered disabilities have never used the internet.

It was an issue that did not go unnoticed by the NHS. Digital education has become a key activity in making online services truly accessible.

Over 200,000 people have now been trained to improve their digital health skills as part of the Widening Digital Participation Programme run by NHS England and the Tinder Foundation.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that 41% of those trained learned to access health information online for the first time - 65% felt more informed about their health. You can see a full version of the Tinder Report here. It makes for interesting and inspiring reading.

In a world so dominated by digital, where many everyday actions - from ordering food to paying bills - are done with the swipe of a finger, it is easy to be inward facing about all things online; to assume that our experience is everyone's experience. It isn't. Far from it.

The Tinder/NHS project is fantastic. It showed the impact online skills can and will have on people's lives. Once they were comfortable with the concept, the patients experienced substantial health benefits - both mental and physical.

It's strange. When online patient services were first pioneered, naysayers all too readily assumed that the overwhelming hurdle to patient uptake would be age. Time and time again I read that older people simply would not like the idea of booking online, ordering their medication with a click or monitoring their conditions by viewing their medical records online.

But age is just a number and I've seen many examples of older generations being the strongest advocates of online health services. The more substantial hurdle is the casual and false assumption that digital skills come naturally to all - indeed, the assumption that everyone has ready online access.

If we are to truly embrace the potential of online patient services, in particular giving patients the opportunity to view their own digital record, we must learn from the Tinder/NHS scheme and use it to fuel every-day digital outreach, awareness and support.

Small actions have the potential to make a big difference. From helping a family member or a friend to build digital confidence, to supporting local initiatives that help more people access internet services, we all have an opportunity to play our part.

Nobody should miss out on free services that can improve their health and wellbeing and I firmly believe that with the right support, nobody has to.