Results from a new report from the Health Innovation Network (HIN) South London and NHS England (London) Digital First team indicate that up to three quarters of Londoners have used online consultation forms, the NHS App and GP surgery websites to access primary care services.

More than 3,000 patients from across London contributed to the report by completing an online survey or participating in focus groups. The report indicates that most people find digital tools beneficial as they allow them to complete key tasks related to managing their healthcare more independently.

Whilst most patients who responded find the digital tools easy and convenient to use, the report also highlights variation across London, with some patients reporting challenges with accessibility and availability of certain features. For example, 43% say they are not able to book a routine GP appointment online and almost a third do not have full access to their medical records via the NHS App.

The report also highlights the importance of continuing to tackle the root causes of digital exclusion, acknowledging that some groups underserved by digital technologies may still be underrepresented in this type of research.

Usage of key digital tools

The most used digital tool is the NHS App, which has been used by 87% of people who completed the survey. Generally, patients feel the NHS App is a useful source of information and they value the ability to manage their own health through ordering repeat medication and accessing their health records.

More than three-quarters (77%) of those surveyed have used online forms to provide information about a health concern or condition to their GP. Patients highlight that these forms often save travel and waiting times, although a third of patients find that online forms are not always available for them to use and some report challenges with lengthy forms to complete.

A similar number (76%) of patients who contributed to the report have used a GP surgery website in the past. Most people feel that GP websites are useful for signposting to self-care and information on how to access GP services.

According to some patients, the quality of GP websites has improved; however difficulties remain for others around navigation, requesting routine appointments, and out-of-date information being displayed on GP websites.

Recommendations for improvement

The recommendations include improved communication with patients about the digital tools available in primary care, driving higher standards of usability and accessibility across the sector, and taking a user-centred approach to engaging patients in service design and delivery.

Based on patient feedback, it also recommends that GP practices consider increasing the amount of time that online forms are available for patients to complete and that they explore enabling more online appointments for patients to book directly.

Other suggestions included building in mechanisms to capture timely feedback from patients and making all repeat medications in the NHS App available to order. Additionally, the report covers a number of considerations related to digital exclusion, identifying the need for flexibility within the use of digital tools.

Discussing the launch of the report, Matt Nye, director of Digital First Programme, NHS England (London) said: “This report has shown us how integral digital tools are for people using primary care services across London.

“Optimising digital channels can often provide long-term efficiency savings for practices while improving patient choice. If we can save admin time for busy GP teams through increasing the use of digital tools where appropriate, that in turn frees up time to help people who need to use other routes to access advice or support.”

Amanda Begley, director of digital transformation at the HIN South London, said: It is great to now have such a rich picture about what is and isn’t working for patients when it comes to digital primary care.

“With the report identifying high usage rates of the NHS App, online consultation forms and GP websites, making some relatively small improvements as identified in the report could have a big benefit for patients and primary care services.

“We also need to make sure digital exclusion remains at the top of the agenda and that primary care teams get the support they need to give patients access to a full range of digital and non-digital options for how they manage their health.”