Two suppliers have been shortlisted to develop an open source ‘NHS e-referrals service’ that will be officially launched next month.

Beverley Bryant, NHS England’s director of strategic systems and technology, told EHI that plans for a new e-referrals service had been given the “green light”.

IT companies BJSS and Valtech are short-listed to do the development work and the contract winner will be announced soon.

The current e-booking service for outpatient appointments, Choose and Book, is built on an implementation of Cerner’s Millennium product, using the person and scheduling modules.

The development partner will develop a new integration engine using agile methodology to replatform off Millennium and the intellectual property will be owned by the NHS.

“The vision is that the back engine will be an open source development,” said Bryant.

“We will also be developing a front end, but in the longer term we would like the front end to be more embedded in GP software or provided by SMEs so it might be proprietary or open source.

“That needs to be driven by what GPs and hospitals and patients want. We’re looking for innovations in that space and don’t want to prescribe open source necessarily.”

The contract for delivery of Choose and Book is with Atos Healthcare and runs out in December 2013.

Bryant said the new service would not be ready by then and NHS England was negotiating with Atos and Cerner regarding a longer-term exit strategy.

She hoped to have transitioned fully on to the new system by the end of 2014 and aimed to have 100% electronic referrals by 2018.

“My goal for the NHS e-referrals service is 100% uptake and the only way we are going to get that is if GP referrers find it easier to use, hospitals find it easier to use and patients want them to use it because they can see the value to them,” said Bryant.

Engaging with users was a key part of the e-referrals project and the 100% target was important as running a mixed economy of paper and electronic referrals was inefficient.

“It’s difficult for a hospital to put all referrals on Choose and Book if they know referrals are also coming on paper,” she explained.

A Choose and Book team has been working to understand why usage of the current service sits at just 50% and that feedback will inform new functionality for the e-referrals service.

However, Bryant urged those not using Choose and Book to adopt it soon, rather than sit back and wait for the new service, as this would mean staff were used to doing digital referrals.

NHS England will run another procurement process for a provider to run the e-referrals service.

The new service will be officially launched at the Commissioning Show in London on 12-13 June.