17/03/2017 10:52 GMT | Updated 18/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Go Digital And Do Your Bit For The NHS (And Yourself)

The internet is such a normal part of our lives that it's easy to assume that everything we can do online is being done online, but that's not true in a very important area - healthcare.

Despite our voracious appetite to shop, bank, chat and organise our social lives on our computers, tablets, and smartphones, surprisingly few of us are using the free online services now offered by almost every GP surgery in England.

To improve uptake, the government has charged English GP practices with achieving at least a 10% patient sign-up rate for online services by the end of this month (March 2017). Scotland and Wales are earlier on the digital journey, but both have pledged millions to improve online access to GP services.

When you consider the strong benefits they offer, it's surprising that uptake of these services has been so low. Assuming you have easy access to the internet (and I accept this is not the case for all) I can't imagine why anyone would rather hang on the phone to make a doctor's appointment when they could pick a convenient slot online.

Equally, managing your repeat medication through the electronic prescription service offers huge time and convenience benefits over the traditional route. No more ferrying the green paper slip back and forth between the GP surgery and the pharmacy; instead, you can request what you need with a few clicks and collect it from any pharmacy of your choice.

Besides the convenience of online GP services, there is also strong evidence that patients like having control over their own care. In the case of online access to medical records, being able to see our own detailed information can actually help us stick to our drug treatment and understand our health better.

So what's the problem? In this internet-savvy age, why aren't more of us signing up for these free services?

Low awareness of online GP services

Research from Citizen's Advice highlights that low awareness is the main problem. Analysing data from NHS England's 2015 GP Patient Survey, it found that over half of patients (53%) did not know what online GP services were available. The problem was higher with younger people; 59% of 18-24-year-olds did not know what services were available, despite having a high preference for booking online appointments (45% would prefer to do this).

While awareness had improved slightly in the 2016 GP Patient Survey, this still found that nearly half of all patients (49.8%) were unsure whether their GP offered online services, with one in ten believing that no services were available.

Citizen's Advice suggests the process of registering for and using the free services is also a factor; some surgeries require patients to physically attend to be given their login details, which is difficult for those with busy lives or mobility issues. Ease of use and technical issues with the services themselves could also be barriers.

With awareness the over-riding issue, the charity called for GPs to do more to promote online services - and that is happening right now, as practices across England chase the 10% target by the end of March. If you've visited your GP practice in recent weeks you may have seen the blue and yellow posters publicising the registration drive.

It's easy to be cynical about NHS targets, but signing up more people for online services is not just a paper exercise. These services are an important way in which you and I can do our bit to help reduce pressure on scarce NHS resources.

Help the NHS to save time

Every appointment that is booked online is time freed up for a busy receptionist to spend on other important work with patients - for example, ringing people to tell them their test results are in. Of course, some GP practices are already doing that online too.

Being able to cancel an appointment online can also reduce 'did not attends' (DNAs) - when patients simply don't turn up for an appointment. The General Practitioner's Council estimates that more than 10 million GP appointments a year (5% of all those available) end up as DNAs, at significant cost to the NHS. Making even a small impact on this figure could make a huge difference.

Making it easier to book GP appointments could also reduce inappropriate visits to emergency care. Citizens Advice's own research in 2014 found that 18-34-year-olds, who have the biggest appetite for online services, are twice as likely as the over-55s to go to A&E or an NHS walk-in centre when they can't see a GP.

With the technology now widely available across the country - and major improvements in usability in recent years - there really is no excuse for not signing up for these services. You can find more information and pointers here.

So, for all you digital refuseniks out there (or perhaps the digital slow-to-get-round-to-its), here's my challenge to you. Go online with your GP and do your bit to help the health service run that little bit more easily in 2017.