County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust has moved to a fully electronic referral service for hospital appointments.

The move means patients in County Durham in the north east of England, can now book outpatient appointments online, instead of having to wait for an outpatient letter.

It also means the STP footprint covering Durham, Darlington, Tees, Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby (DDTHWR) now handles referrals 100% electronically.

Using the e-referrals (e-RS) system, patient can select the closest suitable hospital for their appointment and receive confirmation instantly if their appointment is confirmed.

GPs send e-referrals via the NHS’s electronic referrals service (e-RS) to the hospital’s patient administration system, CaMIS from EMIS Health. In addition to processing outpatient appointments electronically, they can also ask consultants for advice and guidance on treatment before making a referral, to cut hospital appointments to a minimum.

County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust manages eight local hospitals covering a population of 650,000. It receives 8,000 GP referrals a month.

The e-referral service is a joint initiative with NHS Digital, which believes that £50.5m could be saved each year if e-RS was used across the entire health service.

Patient booking manager Margaret Herkes explained that NHS Digital asked the trust to push for the 100% target because it already had an 80% success rate in e-referrals and was an early adopter of e-RS, having adopted it ten years ago.

The trust first consulted local GPs to understand why they did not always refer through the e-RS.

They found one reason was that not all hospital consultants were named on the system, meaning they had to send a paper referral if they wanted a specific clinician.

The other was that GPs could not refer through e-RS if they only wanted advice as opposed to an appointment.

“We worked with EMIS Health to develop CaMIS so that the system could do this for us and a month later, 100% of e-referrals were electronic,” said Herkes.

“It has massively cut down on the time patients wait to hear about a hospital appointment, and it means clinicians’ time is used much more efficiently.”

From 1 October this year, trusts will only be paid by NHS England for outpatient appointments that are booked electronically.

In March, NHS England issued a new GP contract guaranteeing an extra £10 million to help NHS trusts move to e-RS by October.