People are keen to use digital health services, but have little knowledge of those already on offer and are keener for them to support than replace traditional services, a YouGov survey for Trustmarque has suggested.
A poll of 2,010 adults, undertaken in July, found that two thirds (68%) strongly or ‘tended to’ agree with the statement that the NHS should use technology to increase efficiency, improve patient outcomes, and improve the patient experience.
But just 4% realised that they could already access their health records online, and more than a third (40%) did not know that they could book hospital or GP appointments online.
Patient access to records has been pledged by successive governments, and the latest NHS IT strategy, ‘Personalised Health and Care 2020’, says that patients will have read/write access by 2018.
As a first step, GPs were required to give patients access to a subset of the GP record – the information held in the NHS Summary Care Record – by April.
Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre indicate that the target for 95% of practices to be offering this functionality was met by GPs enabling the relevant functionality in their practice systems.
The same functionality enables patients to book online and order repeat prescriptions. Despite this, just 54% of the poll sample said they knew they could book GP appointments online.
Even fewer were aware of the Choose and Book / e-Referral service, which enables patients to book hospital appointments. Just 12% of the sample said it was possible to book hospital tests or consultations online.
A Trustmarque commentary on the findings says “there is a clear opportunity for the NHS to encourage more patients to use the e-Referral Service, simply by raising awareness of it among the general public.”
It argues that this should cut ‘did not attends’, and further argues that more use of appointments reminders could have the same effect, particularly if the NHS shifted towards email and text, which were preferred by 58% and 36% of respondents (with 20% opting for phone calls and just 17% for post).
Beverley Bryant, director of digital technology for NHS England, said: "Over 97% of GP practices offer patients the chance to access their GP records online, as well as book appointments and order repeat prescriptions. We encourage everyone to ask their GP surgery to set up their online access next time they visit."
Turning to the introduction of new, digital services, one reading of the poll figures is that there is some ambivalence about them.
Asked whether they would “like to be able to communicate with health professionals outside of formal appointments”, three quarters of respondents (72%) unsurprisingly said they would, with 40% backing phone, 35% email and 26% online communications.
But asked whether they would use online information or virtual consultations, there was more evidence that people are either unaware of existing services or opposed to using them.
Despite the existence of the well-established online advice services, such as NHS Choices and the Emis-run patient.co.uk, just a fifth (21%) of those polled said they used online healthcare information regularly.
Half (28% and 19%) said they would use it more often or give it a try “if there was more information readily available” and a fifth (22%) saying they were “not interested in online healthcare information.”
Similarly, around half (48%) of respondents said they would support or tend to support one of the government’s favourite ideas; consultations by Skype. But a quarter (23%) were neutral on the subject, with a fifth (21%) actively opposed.
Even fewer patients currently use health apps – with just 10% of those polled saying they use them to monitor and manage their health.
Although three quarters (76%) backed plans for the NHS to approve apps, there was more support for apps to support access to services than to issue advice or provide an alternative to existing services.
Of those polled, half (47%) supported apps to book appointments, but just 38% backed apps to give out diet and exercise advice, and just a quarter (25%) liked the idea of apps to provide mental health support.
Similarly, although eight out of ten respondents backed the use of wearable devices in healthcare, most wanted to see them used for monitoring vulnerable people (50%) rather than helping patients to follow diet and exercise regimes (39%) or to monitor patients in hospital (31%).
Despite this, the Trustmarque commentary says there is sufficient support for new channels of communication between clinicians and patients for these to “generate greater efficiencies for the NHS.”
It also argues that “as citizens become more familiar and comfortable with health applications and wearable technologies, there is an opportunity for the NHS to transform existing services and offer new ones that will lead to a healthier society and more efficient healthcare system.”