NHS Direct is considering a pilot that will allow patients in Lincolnshire to use a smartphone app to book appointments with their GP.

EHealth Insider understands that negotiations are taking place with some GPs in Lincolnshire to start allowing practice systems to directly interface with NHS Direct, for a trial to start this autumn.

The trial would involve patients using a GP appointment booking smartphone app or the NHS Direct website to book their own appointment, linking directly into the GP system.

If the partnership is agreed, Lincolnshire patients who visit the NHS Direct website to check symptoms or seek health advice will also be able to book an appointment with their local GP through the system, if they are advised to make one by the website’s clinical decision support software.

The deployment of GP appointments would be the second phase of a digital pilot involving NHS Direct, the Department of Health and NHS Choices. This is exploring options for delivering an NHS 111 service through digital channels, integrating the existing online health and symptom checkers.

A source told EHI that despite “some scepticism from GPs” regarding outside access to their appointment schedules, they were “confident” that the project could start this autumn.

The first phase of the pilot involves the localisation of care offerings on NHS Direct for people in the Lincolnshire area, where patients will now be advised to attend specific local healthcare providers such as the Pilgrim Hospital in Boston.

Through collaboration with software providers InferMed, the NHS Direct health and symptom checkers are now accessed by around 26,000 people every day, either online or via the smartphone app.

A spokesperson for NHS Direct downplayed the plans, telling EHI “there are no current plans to pilot GP appointment booking in the digital pilot” but said that there is potential for such a scheme in the future at the discretion of the DH.

Addressing delegates at the health+in4matics event in Birmingham, Dr Brian Gaffney, director of public health at NHS Direct said the organisation had saved the health economy £57m since it first implemented the online symptom checkers.

“We don’t have the ability to track patients throughout the NHS, but we have asked them about their treatment and where they would have gone if they hadn’t been able to use the phone app or website. They tell us they would have gone to the GP or called an ambulance,” he said.

Dr Gaffney said the site and app offered a “suitable alternative to face-to-face GP consultations.” The DH believes a 1% reduction in face to face consultations will save the NHS around £200m a year.

“Over the next three to five years average GP face to face consultations will not be sustainable so we need to provide a solution for patients who are looking for healthcare advice, information and healthcare itself.”

A study by Deloitte, called ‘Primary Care: Today and Tomorrow’ found that 10,000 GPs are set to retire within the next five years and with an ageing population the demands on practices are set to increase.

Dr Gaffney believes that the NHS needs to “embrace digital” to ensure it can deliver sustainable care, with an emphasis on moving “labour intensive tasks such as administration online."

“The research is quite clear that if we move digital we can increase access to medical information. It empowers patients and we can achieve a better quality of healthcare.

“For patients digital is transforming healthcare and they are using it to get their own healthcare solutions. We either have to go along with them or the patients will leave us behind,” he said.

Dr Gaffney informed delegates that NHS Direct would explore many different digital including appointment bookings and the possible delivery of virtual consultations between GP and patient using web-cams.

“We are providing our solutions through many various forms such as netdoctor, which came out of c4 through the ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ programme and we will look to expand such solutions over the next few years.”

NHS Direct was the winner of the “excellence in major healthcare IT development” at the EHI Awards 2011 in association with BT for the redevelopment of its website and online symptom checkers.