Online patient symptom checker in “digital excellence” plan

  • Date: 21 September 2016

PATIENTS in England will be able to check symptoms and get medical advice online as part of a multi-million pound “digital excellence” plan.

They will also be able to register with a GP and access healthcare records via tablet or smartphone, as well as choose from a list of NHS-approved health apps.

The plans were unveiled by health secretary Jeremy Hunt in a bid to expand the use of digital technology across the NHS. It follows a review of NHS technology by renowned US clinician Bob Wachter.

The new online symptom checker will form part of an expansion of the NHS 111 non-emergency phone line service that aims to offer a “triage” service for less serious health problems. Patients who type in their symptoms will be offered tailored advice or a call-back from a healthcare professional, where appropriate. The system is being developed in consultation with “leading clinicians” and will be tested in pilot schemes before being implemented.

The NHS Choices website will also be relaunched as NHS.UK featuring a wider range of online patient services that will include GP appointment booking and prescription ordering/tracking.

The Department of Health also plans to establish 12 new centres of excellence – or “global exemplars” – who will be given up to £10 million to “deliver pioneering approaches to digital services and help others in the NHS to learn from their experience”. They will be partnered with an international organisation of their choice “to take full advantage of their expertise”.

A new academy will be established to train NHS staff in digital skills, hosted by universities. Further funding of up to £5 million each will be given to 20 trusts to become “national exemplars”. They will receive “an intensive programme of support” from the new NHS digital academy to improve the use of technology across their organisation.

Mr Hunt said: “Bob Wachter’s excellent review made it clear that digitisation is as much about people as it is technology, and that this is a real opportunity to improve patient care for the long term. We want to fast track existing digital excellence, as well as nurture new skills and expertise that we will need to deliver a new breed of digitised services.”

RCGP chair Dr Maureen Baker gave the new plans a cautious welcome.

She said: “[R]eputable health websites, such as NHS Choices, can be a really useful source of information for patients, so plans to enhance this service is positive.

“But taking this one step further, and asking patients to use an online tool when they are ill in lieu of describing their symptoms to someone over the phone, who is trained to ask the right questions, should be approached with extreme caution.

“We would advise against such a dramatic overhaul that distances patients from healthcare professionals even further. It also risks alienating some of our most vulnerable patients, who might not be as used to dealing with technology as others.”

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