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A doctor holds her stethoscope in an outpatients ward at a hospital in London
Image: A doctor holds her stethoscope in an outpatients ward at a hospital in London. REUTERS/Toby Melville

NHS App: Revolutionary Or Just A Gimmick?

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Image: A doctor holds her stethoscope in an outpatients ward at a hospital in London. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt says the new NHS app is a “70th birthday gift” to Britons that will “revolutionise” how they access GP services and eliminate the “8am scramble” for doctors’ appointments. But critics claim otherwise.

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has unveiled a new app that will enable patients to connect directly with their local general practitioner (GP) services.

Patients will be able to use the app, which launches in December on Android and Apple, to book appointments, peruse their medical records, see test results, order repeat prescriptions and even update their organ donor status.

App will end ‘scramble for appointments’

UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt says he wants it to “revolutionise the way we access health services”.
“I want this innovation to mark the death-knell of the 8am scramble for GP appointments that infuriates so many patients,” he says.

“As the NHS turns 70 and we draw up a long-term plan for the NHS on the back of our £394m a week funding boost, it’s time to catch up and unleash the power of technology to transform everyday life for patients.”

‘Nothing new’, say critics

However, critics say that patients are already able to access many of these same services via the web, with many UK doctors’ surgeries offering online appointment booking and the ability to make repeat prescriptions or view test results via the web.

“Online access to GP systems is nothing new,” Dr Neil Bhatia, a GP, told Sky News. “For many years now patients have been able to go online and book appointments, update their contact details, request their usual medication and view their electronic GP record.”

BMA: Doctors ‘can’t create appointments from nowhere’

What’s more, the British Medical Association, which represents many of Britain’s doctors, says that the app does nothing to solve what it says is the pressing problem behind the lack of available appointments – the crippling workload of NHS GPs.

“GPs understand and share the public’s frustration at not always being able to get an appointment, and this app has the potential to offer patients who are comfortable using this type of technology another option to contact their practice,” Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, says in a statement.

“In using this it is important to ensure patient confidentiality is protected and develop systems that enable patients are directed to the right course of action or appointment for their condition.

“If developed and tested appropriately, it could also be helpful for those ordering repeat prescriptions or receiving test results.

GPs can’t cope with rising demand

“However, it cannot create appointments out of nowhere. One of the fundamental problems facing general practice is that there are not enough GPs to meet rising demand, meaning patients wait longer and doctors face unmanageable workloads. So, while innovation such as this app has potential, the government’s priority must be to address the workforce crisis.”

“Unless the chronic shortage of GPs and the sheer workload that practices face is addressed, the 8am scramble for appointments will persist, as no online appointments will be available,” agreed Dr Bhatia.

Dan Sheldon, head of digital at Well Pharmacy, notes that triage at GP surgeries – deciding which patients have priority – is also a major issue.

“Unfortunate that the PR line for NHS app is that it will ‘end scramble for GP appointments’,” he says on Twitter. “This is a promise it can’t fulfil unless it: makes more appointments available, improves triage [and] convinces GPs that it does better triage than their receptionists.”

New app could actually waste GP time, competitor claims

The BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones’ initial assessment of the new app is that it “looks pretty basic” and is entering a “crowded market for health apps”, many of which are more advanced.

AskmyGP, for example, offers GP surgeries an online triage system, enabling patients to find out whether they actually need an appointment, while another service, Cellan-Jones notes, Babylon’s GP At Hand, has boasted that the artificial intelligence in its app is equivalent to a doctor’s own expertise – something disputed by the Royal College of GPs.

In fact, Harry Longman, founder of app AskmyGP, told the BBC that the NHS’s app could actually put further strain on doctors’ workloads because it provides appointments without the patient first outlining their symptoms to a GP.

“Booking an appointment online seems like a good idea, until you realise that it doesn’t create any more GP capacity and may even waste more GP time through inappropriate bookings by those who know how to play the system,” he told Cellan-Jones, explaining that research revealed that typically only a third of patients approaching GP surgeries for help actually require a traditional appointment.

However, Jeremy Hunt argues that access to the NHS’ 111 service, included in the app, may help some patients realise that they do not need to visit their GP in person after all, freeing up more time for urgent cases.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alvexo on the matter.