The new NHS e-referrals service has been officially launched by Beverly Bryant, NHS England’s director of strategic systems and technology.

Use of the service, which will replace Choose and Book, will not be made mandatory, Bryant told the Health+Care conference in London this morning.

However, she said she was confident that it could create a tipping point for e-referrals around the NHS.

“We don’t believe that mandating and saying things are compulsory are going to work. We need to persuade people that it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

As previously revealed by EHI, two suppliers have been shortlisted to develop the service, using open source software.

BJSS and Valtech are in the running to develop a new integration engine to replatform the product, which is currently built around functionality from Cerner Millennium. A final choice will be made in July.

Bryant said she hoped that the service would be ready in “about a year.” She also indicated that a number of front-ends could be developed, on the model of travel websites. But if patients want to receive referrals by post, they will be able to do so.

Choose and Book was developed a decade ago, after the then-Labour government promised to introduce “airline-style booking” to the NHS.

It was intended as one of a number of new, digital services to make the NHS more convenient.

However, its roll-out was significantly delayed, and usage has stalled at around 50% of referrals – although around 90% of GPs use it.

NHS England argues that the most significant problems with Choose and Book are now that not all hospital appointments are on it.

Bryant said that clinical commissioners need to work with hospitals and to use the contractual levers they have at their disposal to change the situation.

She emphasised that clinical commissioning groups could do this now, and did not have to wait for the new e-referrals service to make progress.

To demonstrate that NHS England wants to “build something that people will use”, the NHS England show stand included a list of features that the new service might include and people were asked to vote for their favourites, using coloured stickers.

A five month “listening exercise” will be run to formalise this exercise. Bryant said she not only wanted the service to make booking easier for patients, but to include better reporting tools for commissioners, to enable them to better plan services.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre has posted videos about the new service on its website.