The Health and Social Care Information Centre is developing a set of open APIs for its NHS e-Referrals service, with plans to deliver the first interface by the end of the year.

Phil Nixon, the programme lead for the e-Referral Service at the HSCIC, which will become NHS Digital later this year, said the idea behind opening up the APIs of the booking system was to “allow compliant systems to interact with [it], to make things slicker, and to make it easier for people to swap between applications.” 

Nixon said a survey of 8,000 users had identified better usability and integration between e-RS and other systems as the improvements that they would most like to see. 

“There is a great deal of interest and engagement in this area,” he said. “So the next phase of the programme is about making sure we have got the building blocks in place to roll out interfaces in a safe manner.” 

The e-Referral Service was created to replace Choose and Book, the NHS’ first “airline style booking system”, which was procured as part of the National Programme for IT in the NHS in 2003. 

The HSCIC used the government’s G-Cloud framework to award a contract to BJSS to develop a platform for the service, using agile methodology and open source software. 

The new service went live last June, with relatively few changes to the old Choose and Book front-end, but the promise that the new back-end would support much greater functionality and more rapid development. 

It is now in use in 8,600 GP practices and 600 provider services; handling around 50,000 bookings per day. 

Despite this, Paul Denton, a programme manager at the HSCIC, told Digital Health News that it was recognised that “the front-end is not easy for GPs to use” while hospitals found it difficult to integrate bookings with their patient administration and other core systems.

“We are looking at the workflow from the GP to the PAS system,” he said. “From the GP perspective, we want to simplify things. We are also looking at getting rid of latency and bringing in third parties with more advanced software into these areas.” 

Denton said the API project had already put a lot of work into talking to users and establishing their requirements, and had moved into a beta phase of scoping out the first API or APIs to be developed. 

The next phase will be an ‘alpha demonstrator’ that can be shown to users. The most likely candidate is to enable providers to see the clinical referral information compiled by GPs in their systems in their electronic patient record systems. 

This would both provide clinicians with more information about the referral, and cut the administrative burden of re-keying the data. 

“We have spoken to a couple of trusts, and they think they could save around £100,000 per year by getting referral information from the PAS systems,” Denton said. “It’s a ballpark figure, but across the NHS it could be a significant saving.” 

The next steps in the project will be to confirm this idea and then to build it and get it live. Nixon stressed that the first pilot would both test technical aspects “and make sure that components, security, and so on are robust” and establish a model for development and deployment that could be used for subsequent developments. 

Eventually, this should enable a faster release cycle. “When we get into the next phase, we will be looking to talk to everybody more about what is coming next, so we can expand the scope,” he said. 

An NHS e-Referral Service Delivery Roadmap, released by the HSCIC this month, says the API Beta Project should have its ‘initial candidate API(s) development complete’ by the end of June this year. 

This should be available for ‘release into live service’ by the end of September, with piloting complete by the end of the year. 

The roadmap details a number of other developments that are in hand for e-RS; including a ‘system alert’ that will deliver news about incidents and developments from within the service itself.