The National Health Service (NHS) in England is introducing a new app that will allow patients to access NHS services on their smartphones and tablets, to be gradually rolled out across the country starting from December this year.
Developed by NHS Digital and NHS England, it will be available through the App Store and Google Play for patients aged 16 and over, who will be able to use the app to access their GP records and the NHS 111 symptom checker, book appointments, order repeat prescriptions, register as organ donors and set data sharing preferences, using a single identity verification system.
"I like it. But more important than me liking it, the design has been led by user testing and user need."
Matt Hancock, Health and Social Care Secretary
NHS Digital says that, in the future, the app could suggest other secure health tools that patients might benefit from by linking it to the NHS Apps Library – which currently boasts 73 apps, and is the NHS’s second attempt at making sense of the proliferation of digital health tools available on app markets.
At an event organised last month in London, NHS England Deputy Chief Executive and National Director of Operations and Information Matthew Swindells said the new app should be viewed as a "usable and trustworthy" resource for people to turn to, but, if they needed further help for a particular condition, they might want to use a specialist app to get more information.
"A big step in making the NHS resemble the rest of the modern world"
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock recently announced that the app would be piloted in five different regions starting this month– Liverpool, Hastings, Bristol, Staffordshire and South Worcestershire - to help the NHS collect feedback ahead of the national rollout.
“I like it,” the secretary told delegates at the NHS Expo conference in Manchester at the beginning of September.
“But more important than me liking it, the design has been led by user testing and user need. Research published by Roche here at Expo shows just how welcome the NHS app will be. More than half of 16-24 year olds asked said they would actually prefer to receive GP advice online or via an app than face to face.
“We must respond to this change in expectations. This is just the beginning of the process. Patients who want to will feel the benefits of being able to access services through their fingertips, rather than needing to pick up the phone or physically walk into a GP surgery. It is a big step in making the NHS resemble the rest of the modern world around us.”
"Adequate safeguards" needed to ensure patient data is securely stored
In July, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the app was a "significant and constructive step forward" in the management of care, but warned that GP surgeries would need to have access to the necessary resources needed to introduce the app without disruption.
Professor Stokes-Lampard said it was important for the NHS to assess the implications of the app’s launch for patients that did not have access to the internet, did not own a smartphone or had low literacy skills, adding that "adequate safeguards" would need to be put in place to ensure patients’ data was securely stored at all times.
"As with any scheme it must also be rigorously independently evaluated to ensure it is safe and cost-effective for the NHS and that is beneficial to both patients and practices and that it does not add a further burden of workload pressures to already overstretched GPs and their teams.”
NHS Digital research indicates that patients welcome the introduction of an NHS-branded app, but Matthew Honeyman, The King's Fund Researcher, wrote back in July that there would be challenges in making the app "compelling and useful for patients". In a blog, Honeyman said there was a risk that the app would be adding to the "plethora of ways" people could interact with the NHS, adding: "The team working on the app at NHS Digital and NHS England will need to ensure it can connect with local areas to ensure their existing work does not go to waste."
Meanwhile, the impact that the NHS app will have on the growing health tech ecosystem in the UK, however, remains to be seen. At Expo, the health secretary said:
“I (...) want to reassure those in the room building their own products that we have no intention or desire to close off the market - in fact we want exactly the opposite."