How can the NHS improve its digital service delivery?

By Patrick Nash

Following the NHS’ critical report into its own digital service delivery, I suggest the ways in which it could improve services, while keeping costs down.   

An NHS commissioned report has found that investment in digital services could release funds of up to £3billion, while improving the standard of services offered to patients.

The Digital First report suggests that there is a compelling business case for an update of the online services offered by the NHS as:

–    92 per cent of the British population have a mobile phone

–    79 per cent of the British population are online

–    25 million people visit over 500 different websites offering advice on health and wellbeing.

The report proposes that by fully implementing ten initiatives – which I have scaled down to five bite-sized suggestions – the NHS can enhance their service delivery, while saving a considerable sum of money that could be invested elsewhere to plug the reported £20billion service gap.

Online

Visitors to the NHS’ website can already self-assess minor ailments using the Symptom Checker service. However there is currently no ‘webchat’ facility and patients cannot book appointments with their GP online or log on to collect test results – all of which could be implemented fairly simply.

Using webchat, an advisor can manage multiple enquiries at once via an instant messenger type system. This approach is used in some areas of healthcare – for instance NHS Direct provides a webchat facility for a part of its online assessment service – but it could be used far widely.

Mobile

For smartphone users, apps could be developed to help patients identify symptoms and access personal medical records – although variations would be necessary due to the differences in specifications of phone models.

For all other users, simply automated texts could be sent out to confirm a patient’s appointment and to remind them shortly before an appointment. This could help to avoid ‘did not attends’, an issue that costs the NHS huge sums of money every year.

Partner syndication

This would involve placing NHS content on digital channels outside the NHS central hub and allowing people to access services wherever they choose, rather than just where they want to provide them. This benefits users by extending reach and providing them with high value contact with an organisation that is able to support them on their query.

Telephone

The telephone is still the most popular method of communication in the UK, with a landline for one in every two people in the country. However, after face- to-face contact, phone-based services can be some of the most expensive and time-consuming channels for support.

Yet, with 30 per cent of over 65 year olds without a mobile phone, and with older people representing a large portion of the NHS’ patients, traditional methods of service delivery must still be acknowledged.

Therefore, with services such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR), callers can be directed to the correct department without the need for operator action. IVR presents a caller with a menu of options, responding either to voice commands or button presses.

Social media

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is rapidly becoming one of the main ways that people communicate, with two fifths of people’s time on a computer spent doing just that.

One in three people are now using social networking sites for health-related issues, however they are opting to obtain medical information from community or patient sites instead of those set up by healthcare organisations. Over 70 per cent of people want more assistance from the healthcare providers via social media, a demand that could be addressed fairly simply.

Next Steps

By putting these digital initiatives into place the NHS could save billions of pounds by focussing its operatives on those who need help most. It could reduce the money lost on people failing to attend their appointments with cheap reminder messages, and allow more people to self-prescribe minor aliments with assistance online – saving GPs’ time to focus on those more in need.

Having assisted a number of public sector organisations in their digital service delivery – such as Sussex Police and the NHS Plus’ Health for Work – we know there are a number of benefits to investing in your online service delivery such as reduced overall costs, and increased user-satisfaction.

However, these improvements must be seen in the context of a wider service delivery that still boasts first-class service overall.

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