We were the first practice in the country to be connected to the NHS App, back in September 2018. Now, three quarters of all practices across England are connected, with more practices being linked in every day.
However, as we discovered, it isn’t just as simple as having your practice switched on and you are good to go – there was preparation work we needed to do. I would like to share our experience, hoping it will act as useful guidance and advice for practices that are being connected now during the national rollout.
Like most practices, we had online services available for our patients to access even before we introduced the NHS App. However, we have found that most patients who downloaded and used the NHS App had not previously used any online service for interacting with us. This might be down to the fact, with the NHS App, patients can create an account and log in from their sofa at home, rather than having to come to the practice to register to use online services.
The app allows patients to book and cancel appointments, view their summary care information, manage repeat prescriptions, use the NHS 111 online service and A-Z symptom checker, as well as set their organ donation and data sharing preferences.
The NHS centrally is advising GP practices to follow three steps to ensure they are ready for the NHS App – you can read more here: digital.nhs.uk/nhsapp. In our experience, it seems good advice:
- Brief your staff
- Prepare your systems
- Tell your patients
Briefing your staff
The app has been available to download in smartphone app stores since December, so we have had a steady flow of patients keen to ask us about it and how they can use it. As a patient, there would be nothing worse than asking a question about the app to their doctor or a member of practice staff only to get a blank look and no answers.
We’ve made sure our staff are familiar with the app – what it can do, how it works, what patients see when they go into it to use its services including accessing their medical records, how to create an account and log in. They’ll also need to know how to remove access to online appointment booking for patients who book or cancel appointments inappropriately.
Preparing your systems
The NHS App will show any appointments you have made available for online booking within the next 30 days. You’ll need to check the way your online appointment booking is set up and some may find they need to make some changes.
Some practices get anxious about making too many appointments available online, as they fear they might lose gatekeeping control, but actually it is really helpful to have a large proportion of appointments available to book online.
If you want to reduce the volume of phone calls – especially that 8am rush – from patients trying to book, then embrace this approach. The new GP Contract Five Year Framework obliges all practices to make at least a quarter of our appointments available to book online, but it’s worth considering going further. Explore as a practice what appointment types you could make available and give it a try.
There are simple step-by-step instructions for preparing your system for the TPP and EMIS systems on the NHS Digital website.
Another thing you need to make sure of is that your appointments have names that patients can understand – for example, “blood test” not “phlebotomy”. Otherwise, you’ll be inundated with calls from patients trying to use the app but getting frustrated at not understanding appointment names.
Use simple, easy-to-understand language that makes the purpose of the appointment clear. Avoid using the word ‘default’ and if appointments are for specific groups, then state this clearly; for example, ‘Women only – cervical screening’.
Keep appointment names short, as your patients will be reading them on a smartphone screen. You don’t need to include the clinician’s name or time of day as this is already on the app.
Telling your patients
Once you’ve completed the first two steps, tell your patients! Our CCG was helpful in providing us with promotional materials to include on our practice walls and on our screens, and we’ve also encouraged our GPs and staff to mention the app to patients. When we first went live with it, we sent a text message to all our patients, too.
We’re still at an early stage and have much more to do to increase the proportion of our patients using it, but we’re already starting to see the benefits. I hope you do too.
Karen McGarry is Practice Manager at Walton Medical Centre in Liverpool – the first practice to try the NHS App during the pilot in autumn 2018.