25/12/2013 05:12 GMT | Updated 23/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Online Healthcare: Just Do It

By 2020, 40% of healthcare will be accessed online. That's the prediction of Professor Clare Gerada, until recently the chair of the Royal College of GPs.

Her claims have generated much debate, which crystallised around one central objection - the argument that online health services are not inclusive.

In particular, it is claimed, a move towards online healthcare would be to the detriment of the elderly, the very people that need the NHS most. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Take, for example, the pioneering Patient Access health portal. Recent figures show that visits to the portal, where patients can book GP appointments, view test results, order repeat medication, view their medical record and message their practice, have risen by over 60% since June 2013.

Who is visiting the site? Sceptics would no doubt say it is only the tech generation - internet savvy twenty and thirty-somethings that bank, shop and socialise online. They'd be wrong. Over a quarter of visits were made by those over the age of 55, and many service users are in their 80s. Furthermore, it is surely axiomatic that "digital native" children or grandchildren can and do assist their "digital immigrant" relatives.

Of course, this is not conclusive proof that online services will appeal to all. They won't. But equally, they aren't fundamentally exclusive of key sections of society. As long as they are developed with patients' needs at the centre, services that give patients control over their own health have a lot to offer.

And it's not just the patient who benefits. Online health services also have a lot to offer the whole UK healthcare economy. Earlier this year, the PwC report "NHS@75", which analysed future scenarios facing the NHS, concluded that the NHS needed to innovate or die.

A large part of that innovation, it predicted, needs to come from implementing an environment where patients are "informed and proactive about their health and wellbeing"; and "active partners in healthcare". This view was also echoed recently by National Director for Patients and Information (NHS England) Tim Kelsey, when he stated that "the most important goal of a modern health service is to achieve authentic patient participation".

By far the biggest opportunity to do this is to embrace the potential of online patient services - and the good news is that the groundwork is already done. It just needs cultivating.

Imagine an environment where patients with long-term conditions can monitor their test results online without the need to call or visit their GP if levels are normal; an environment where an elderly patient can easily manage their multiple repeat prescriptions, access their medical record and feel in control of their healthcare planning.

Imagine an environment where integrated health apps allow patients to monitor key aspects of their own health - their blood sugar levels for instance - and directly update their GP record accordingly.

A more inclusive environment you will not find because all of the above scenarios involve a patient centred approach to healthcare that makes the patient a partner in, not a bystander to, their on-going care.

Now imagine that these environments are possible, not years from now; not months from now; but today. This isn't future gazing. The technology is in place to make this a reality now.

In January 2013, health and wellbeing website launched 'My Health' - an online health tracker that enables individuals to calculate and then work towards improving their 'health score'. Over 100,000 people have already used the facility. Over 600,000 visitors to the site have downloaded health management apps, ranging from tools to help manage diabetes data, IBS symptoms or migraine triggers through to those to manage weight and help improve sleep patterns.

Join tools like these with an increase in the uptake of online GP services and you have a powerful combination - a patient involved in their care and a health system that is helping them do it.