NHS prescribes app store and GP Wi-Fi to heal UK health service

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 9, 2017
Making the NHS digital is not easy. The NHS is complex and diverse, with many differing local and national needs. Here's some insight into the plans.

NHS Health
The prospect of having to transform an organisation as large and unwieldy as the NHS into a slick digital operation sounds terrifying, if not impossible.

With its more than 1.5 million employees and tens of millions of patients, the NHS has not exactly been a shining example of public sector IT, as documented by Derek du Preez on diginomica last month.

But the organisation is persevering regardless, and hopes that its new technology projects will prove more successful and help it reach or surpass the standards set by other industries.

Juliet Bauer, Director of Digital Experience, NHS England was at the Wearable Technology Show in London this week to shed some light on the latest projects, and explain how partnerships and a more open approach are now at the heart of the digital NHS.

The NHS will be launching its own health app store in a few weeks, a digital tools library that will sit under the NHS Choices umbrella but will be open to external users to submit their own information. The NHS already has 10 mental health and six diabetes apps assessed and ready to go, and these will be followed with a variety of digital tools and resources in areas like care of the elderly, smoking and maternity.

Core to this valuable medical resource is working with third parties and other experts rather than shutting them out. Bauer explained:

This will be a federated approach. We’ll work with partners who we trust to do different parts of this process to make sure we build out as many tools as possible. We need to help people who have created brilliant things to flourish rather than stopping them flourishing.”

Even though the system behind the scenes is quite complex, we want to make it easier to work with the NHS. People genuinely want to help the NHS make things better, there’s a really strong feeling about that, but we actually make it quite hard for people to help us by taking the pressure off.

Bauer said that anything appearing in the app store will have been vetted to ensure it’s appropriate, so the organisation will prevent unauthorised or unsuitable information being shared. She added:

The resources will all be technically safe, they will have gone through a host of questions to make sure the data is safe. Some of them will have an additional element, some kind of NHS-approved branding, if there’s enough evidence out there to prove they work and are effective. That will be a limited number at the moment. We’ll also look at having a clinician view on that so they can go in and look at some of the tools they think are good.

Use of APIs

Another aspect to the app store will be developer.nhs.uk, where third parties will be able to view the questions to see what they have to do to get into the store, how they can connect into health data over time, and use identity services the NHS is creating. The organisation is also looking at how to pull the content through to surface it on other sites.

Bauer noted that one in 20 searches on Google are health-related. Among those millions of searches, a huge number of people do not end up on NHS Choices, the organisation’s official site, but will be taken through to any number of other sites, both good and bad. She said:

We need to have APIs of content out to Google so they can actually point people to the places we think they should be pointing people to. We have also been working with Bing to make sure when people are searching for services, they can see the right information about hospitals and ratings.

We’re talking very closely to Apple about how we ensure that when you search for health apps, you get trusted ones. That’s a challenge for Apple as well. They’d like the most effectives ones to be the ones that are used and that’s not always the case; likewise there are NHS-branded ones out there that aren’t always that much to do with the NHS.

Another of Bauer’s core projects is installing Wi-Fi across the entire NHS estate, including doctors surgeries, an ambition she is determined will happen quickly. She said:

When I first took on this role, I assumed we had Wi-Fi out across the estate. This is a basic pre-requisite. I’ve taken this project to turn it from an exploratory project and actually land Wi-Fi as soon as possible, prioritising delivery.

Wireless support is now live in the first GP surgeries, and will be rolled out across all remaining surgeries in the coming months. By the end of March, 991 GP surgeries and 5.3 million patients will have access to Wi-Fi at the doctors. Bauer said:

It’s a big project but an obvious project that has to be done. It offers opportunities, if we can use landing pages to give messages, local messages or national messages, to start people on a journey to digital.

Fixing 111

The NHS is also looking to reduce pressure on its popular 111 non-emergency number by launching an online triage service. The digital 111 service features questions and answer options like, ‘Do you feel so ill you can’t think of anything else? - Yes/not sure/no’ that people can work through online rather than having to pick up the phone.

The 111 online tool is going live in West Yorkshire next week, and there are also three trials live with partners.

The organisation’s main website, NHS Choices, is another area coming in for an overhaul. It currently has between 30 and 50 million visitors every month, looking for information about services they can access, illnesses they might have and ratings of healthcare providers. Bauer said:

We can take those people on a much better digital journey into the NHS. We’re re-platforming all our content and working to redesign the content and focus on action- and service-based measures. Although NHS Choices is fantastic and very trusted, we know that a lot of that content was put together a long time ago, it sits on SharePoint and it needs to come into the modern era.

The redesign, which will also see a rebrand to NHS.UK, is aimed at simplifying the experience, and more easily and quickly giving people the information they’re looking for, Bauer explained, along with providing cleaner, clearer and more specific condition pages. Visitors will get a much more personalised experience, sending them relevant alerts, showing their prescriptions and letting them book appointments.

As over 70 percent of visitors to NHS Choices come from mobile devices, Bauer acknowledged that the new NHS.UK site needs to be responsive, while protecting such sensitive data will also be at the forefront of the new personalised site. This means ensuring only trusted people or parties can see patient data, and only when patients have given their consent. She added:

With everything we do, security has to be right at the top. If we don’t get that right, we’re going to move the digital NHS back. We haven’t always done digital NHS brilliantly so we have a journey to go on to make people believe we can.”

People expect this of us, they expect the journey to be simpler than it is now while maintaining security. We’ve taken hundreds of people and patients through journeys now to see what is working and not working and we’re learning what will be the right journey in terms of friction versus security.

A grey colored placeholder image