Patient power - are you ready?

Empowering patients is at the centre of the Department of Health's strategy for English healthcare. It has set a target of online access to medical records for all patients by 2015, and also requires GP practices to offer online appointment booking and email access. But is the DH's ambition achievable by 2015?

Patient power - are you ready?

Empowering patients is at the centre of the Department of Health's strategy for English healthcare. It has set a target of online access to medical records for all patients by 2015, and also requires GP practices to offer online appointment booking and email access.

These targets recognise the changing world we live in. We are the 'self-service' generation, demanding the right to interact with our health services online. Fast-moving technology is providing ever more ways for us to do so, with 45% of the UK population now visiting the internet via apps from mobile phones.

Is the DH's ambition achievable by 2015? That will depend on a number of factors. Technology is not the biggest barrier; EMIS launched online appointment booking eight years ago and now a number of GP system suppliers offer this facility.

What patients want

Patients also want online access to their GP. In its latest survey of patients' opinions, leading health information website patient.info revealed an exceptionally high demand from patients for transactional services that make their lives easier.

Of the 11,000 patients who responded, 91% said they would use an online service to order repeat prescriptions and 90% wanted to book GP appointments online.

But a survey of GPs and health professionals reveals a more mixed picture; only 69% of the 1,400 health professionals surveyed by patient.info were in favour of online appointment booking; 73% backed online repeat prescription services. Where patients and GPs are most divided is on the issue of online access to medical records; while 82% of patients wanted to see their medical record online, only 46% of GPs supported this.

GPs' concerns

The research highlights what is probably the biggest barrier to extending online health services for patients - GPs' concerns.

In my view, the key issues for GPs are:

  • The fear of loss of control, for example of the practice's appointment book if slots are made available online. In reality, practices have found that putting the patient in the driving seat makes them more responsible, and more likely to attend appointments.
  • GP attitude - 'my patients won't use it' - particularly the elderly ones. This is increasingly unlikely in a world where 86% of 'silver surfers' regularly shop online. Practices offering online services report users across the age spectrum. 
  • Concerns about patient education and confidentiality - this is vitally important around records access, and should not be underestimated.

While it will never take the place of face-to-face consultations, online access is coming, and those who doubt it might be reassured by talking to colleagues who have already embraced it. Johan Taylor, practice manager at the award-winning Marple Cottage Surgery - an early adopter of online services - has some useful advice in this article in GP magazine (subscribers only, but free to register).

System suppliers also have a role to play, by making their existing online healthcare technology quicker and easier to use, for both patients and practices.

For our part, EMIS is introducing some major improvements to our well-used Patient Access service. The first of these is to make it easier for patients to sign up for online services. Previously, this had to be done at the practice, where patients were then given a password. Now patients can register themselves online, obtain a password and book their first GP appointment.

After verifying their registration with their GP practice, they will be able to order repeat medications and use other online services. It will also be easy to securely change or retrieve passwords - without having to trouble their practice again. You can find out more about the changes here.

What's your view on this topic?