The NHS Alpha project is moving into ‘beta’ phase this month and plans to have moved a significant portion of NHS Choices pages to an interactive service within a year.

Testing of six redesigned NHS Choices pages for topics such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and COPD will take place this financial year, with plans for a public beta version of to be live by next March and a full launch of the new site in autumn 2017.

The NHS Alpha team was set up last September to progress plans for a new “digital hub” by developing to connect patients with digital services. It is one of the key National Information Board workstreams and pulls together staff from NHS England, NHS Digital and the Department of Health.

NHS Alpha strategy lead Dan Sheldon said the current offering on – NHS Choices – focuses on providing information, while the new pages will provide tools to encourage online interaction with the NHS.

The six long-term condition pages have been redesigned by the Alpha team, following interviews with more than 100 patients, as well as several user research sessions and labs at GP practices over the past six months.

They focus on providing a more limited set of content that is relevant to patients and pointing them towards online tools, such as booking a GP appointment.

“Change is not easy. We are here to improve the NHS not just build a shiny front end to it and to do that takes time,” Sheldon explained.

The team has produced and tested four prototype tools, including a GP appointment tool and a ‘diabetes planner’, which tailors advice according to a patient’s latest test results and gives them advice on what to do next.

Also, an online GP registration tool, which will be tested with a London practice in the coming months and have a public beta launch next March.

Another development is the GP Look Up tool, which has involved the team creating a database of all GP surgeries and GP names as a searchable online list.

Bringing this information together was much harder than you might think, said Sheldon.

“There’s some really important data staff that needs to get sorted out; basic data about organisations like opening times and what services are available. It’s all important stuff for digital services and right now we’ve not got the right infrastructure,” he explained.

The new pages and tools will be tested with live NHS Choices traffic and slowly transitioned to as they are proven to work.

“Over the next year the public will start to see some big changes, none that will surprise or shock them, but it will make things better and will hopefully make the NHS work better for them,” Sheldon added.

The Alpha team is also establishing an agreed set of service standards on, which will be piloted in September and publicly available by March next year

“We don’t know what these standards will look like yet and there will be a pilot to determine what standards would help as we don’t want to just put another PDF out there,” Sheldon said.

“The goal is to make it easier to build digital services because at the moment there’s no common platforms they can build on top of.”

Digital Health news editor Rebecca Todd went to see the NHS Alpha team recently, to hear more about its digital plans. Read more in features.