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The NHS in the digital age

Posted on: 25 Nov 10


In an age of competition and choice, patient knowledge is paramount. Between 1997 and 2007, the Blair government’s entire programme of public sector reforms were delivered under the banner of ‘Choice and Competition’.

In an age of competition and choice, patient knowledge is paramount. Between 1997 and 2007, the Blair government’s entire programme of public sector reforms were delivered under the banner of ‘Choice and Competition’. Where foundation hospitals provided the mechanism in the health service, city academies become the chosen instrument for education. Yet while Mr. Blair was ultimately shackled by the forces of the left within his party, the current government has no such obstacles in its way. Yet even if the new government is to succeed where the previous administration failed, patients will need to play their role. In other words, the success of any choice and competition agenda is fundamentally defined by the awareness of patients and the information they have access to.

Conversely, in a fiscal landscape where ‘efficiency savings’ – or straightforward retrenchment — are all the rage, patient empowerment can be far more than a fancy Whitehall sound bite. It can actually save money. Thus, the news that last year the NHS Choices website saw a ten per cent increase in its number of users should be welcomed from both of these perspectives.

Specifically, the website, designed to provide patients with the ability to both diagnose and provide basic treatment for medical conditions has witnessed considerable growth in recent years. Alongside a ten per cent increase in the number of people visiting the website, the 2010 Annual Report also points to the now 200,000 daily visits to NHS Choices, in addition to the over 40,000 patients who posted comments on the website, or otherwise engaged with the service in a more interactive manner over the past year. Accumulatively, this resulted in over 100 million visits to the website over the past 12 months.

Commenting on the report, Health Minister Simon Burns said: "Every day we use the internet and technology to organise our lives, and increasingly when it comes to our health. For example, more and more people are taking the information they have found online with them when they consult their GP. It is important they can find accurate, trusted information from sources such as NHS Choices”.

Yet as well as providing patients with the necessary knowledgebase from which to engage with choices about their care,
new research from Imperial College London also demonstrates the capacity for the service to save money too. Indeed, by achieving reductions in ‘avoidable and unnecessary consultations in young people’, NHS Choices is said to be saving the health service approximately £44 million per year. Looking to the future, the report predicted further ‘considerable savings associated with the opportunity users have to act on health advice offered by NHS Choices’. The study also found that an impressive 70% of patients now use the internet as a reliable source of medical information.

With this in mind then, less positive for the NHS is the statistic that while 70% of said patients now look to the internet for advice more generally, a mere 6% of those patients consider NHS Choices as their number one resource. This is particularly concerning with regards to information reliability, with the Imperial College report positing that the majority of demand is currently being met by operators ‘without the levels of validation and quality assurance employed by NHS Choices’. The research also criticised the limited extent to which the website is utilised by GPs during patient consultations.

All this considered however, both reports must be seen in a broadly positive light. First, it is clear that more and more patients are becoming increasingly ‘activated’ to the benefits of the digital medium. Second, and as the research from Imperial College shows, when channeled effectively, this can render considerable savings for the health service. Yet as the Imperial study also shows, in fully capitalizing on this potential, the NHS has a long way to go yet.

Max Golby

Last updated on: 25/11/2010 11:45:18

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