A national healthcare digital television (DTV) service took a step nearer to becoming a reality this week with the issue of an advertisement inviting expressions of interest from suitable suppliers.

The advertisement published in the press and as an OJEC notice sets a deadline of 22 May for submissions. The tender document accompanying the invitation for expressions of interest says that the new service, called the NHS Direct Digital Information Service, should be available by early 2004.

The aim is to make the service available to 95% of the audience with digital television within the first year of the contract and maintain a 24/7 service.

DTV for healthcare has already come under scrutiny in four pilot projects commissioned by the Department of Health from four broadcasting consortia. A pilot led by Living Health tested out information services using text based information; two pilots by Communicopia and DKTV tested a combination of text and video on demand and Channel Health piloted a mix of scheduled programmes and text.

The DH says the evaluation of the pilots showed that the services were likely to have a higher uptake than telephone or Internet based services and would reach groups such as men and low income families that are hard to reach by other means.

”Further, users are likely to be satisfied with the information they can access through DTV and use DTV as an adjunct to or even a replacement for visiting their doctor,” reports the tender document.

The document notes however that the pilots indicated that demand for transactional services such as appointment booking and vaccination reminders was likely to be weaker and caution was advised in taking these services forward in the near future.

The pledge to make healthcare information accessible through DTV was part of the government’s NHS Plan which said, “Patients will be helped to navigate the maze of health information through the development of NHS Direct online, DTV and NHS Direct information points in key public places.”

The timetable would seem to reflect the government’s desire to get as many projects with a highly visible impact up and running as soon as possible before the next general election.

The tender document explains that the DH’s emerging channel management strategy aims to focus the different NHS frontline services more clearly to:
• Extend the reach and timeliness of information;
• Give the public and patients the choice of how they engage with the NHS;
• Maximise the reception of self-care messages though the use of multiple channels, such that the public and patients can use the one with which they are most comfortable;
• Enable the public and patients to identify the appropriate entry point the NHS; and
• Deploy specialist resources effectively, for example by diverting local information queries away from clinically-trained staff at the NHS Direct call centres.