More than 5,000 GP practices in England offer electronic prescriptions and 15 million patients have signed up for the service.

The NHS Electronic Prescription Service has gained significant ground among GP practices over the past year, jumping from around 33% to 65% take-up.

The service was originally due to be rolled out in 2007, but the first deployment at a practice and pharmacy did not happen until July 2009. Delays to the development of Release 2 of EPS meant that by mid-2012, only 198 practices were live with the system, which allows patients to nominate a pharmacy and have their prescription sent to it electronically.

More than 5,000 practices are now live, nearly a quarter of the population have nominated their preferred dispenser, and 97% of pharmacies are set up to process digital prescriptions.  

Richard Jefferson, NHS England’s head of business systems, said: “[EPS] has reached critical mass now and needs to move to adoption for it to become absolute business-as-usual for GPs and pharmacies.”

All electronic prescriptions are sent to pharmacies through the NHS Spine. Jefferson told Digital Health News the introduction of Spine 2 in August last year increased stability and improved uptake of the system. The inclusion of EPS in last year’s GP contract also encouraged practices to engage, he added.

Phase four of the EPS roll-out, due to go-live in 2016, will enable patients to use EPS without nominating a specific pharmacy. Patients will be given a ‘token’ with a unique barcode, which can be scanned at any pharmacy to retrieve medication details and dispense drugs and other prescription items. 

The new technology being developed will also allow patients to choose whether they receive their token on paper via their GP practice or electronically via secure online services.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre is supporting the deployment of EPS in England and calculates that it has delivered benefits of £115 million in 2014-15. It says the full benefit of EPS will come when all practices prescribe electronically all the time. Currently, 43% of NHS prescriptions in surgeries using EPS are electronic.

This is expected to increase as more GPs and patients sign up for the service and the technology is updated to allow controlled drugs to be prescribed electronically and the ‘token’ system is introduced.

The HSCIC expects these changes will increase the proportion of prescriptions sent electronically to around 90% where a practice is live with EPS. 

“Some prescriptions will remain unsuitable for transmission by EPS, for example those where a patient has elected to receive their prescription on paper or there are constraints on the prescribed drug. Further developments will look to address these restrictions and maximise EPS volumes,” the statement says.