The NHS is committed to developing the use of digital technology to deliver care, to help more people get the care they need and to help manage patient demand for services. To achieve this goal, digital services need to be good quality and easy to use, and they need to be accessible to as many people as possible, including those who are currently unable or reluctant to use digital technology.
Since the emergence of COVID in 2020, GP practices have increasingly used websites to communicate with people and to deliver services and support. Most GP practices in Somerset are managed as small independent businesses – they receive guidance from the NHS on what should be included on their websites, but the design and structure is managed through the practice.
In Somerset, 58% of people who completed the NHS England National GP Patient Survey in 2021 said they do not use GP online services to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions, access medical records, or for consultations or appointments. And 50% had not used their GP website to look for information or services.
In response to those results, and ongoing public concerns about difficulties accessing GP care, Healthwatch Somerset decided to investigate the impact of digitalisation on patients using GP services. They gathered feedback from 242 people about GP websites and Healthwatch volunteers also carried out a review and evaluation of all Somerset GP websites.
Based on this research, Healthwatch Somerset has shared the following recommendations with NHS Somerset and Somerset GPs to help improve the quality and accessibility of information and services delivered through GP websites.
- Website design and content should be simple and uncluttered, and frequent changes to design and layout should be avoided so that people can become familiar with using the site.
- Patient input should be sought when developing GP websites, for example through Patient Participation Groups or NHS Somerset Digital Champions.
- Simple instructions should be provided, so that people know how to use the website and how it can help people them get the care they need. This guidance needs to be offered in a variety of formats so that people who do not have to go online to find out how to use the website.
- More help should be provided for people who lack digital knowledge and skills. This could be through Somerset’s GP practice Digital Outreach Team, or by making sure people are directed to support schemes such as ‘Spark iT’ which is provided by Spark Somerset.
- If people are unable or reluctant to use digital services, they must not be criticised or excluded from getting the care they need from their GP practice.
Read the report: People’s experiences of using GP websites to access information.
Healthwatch Somerset Manager, Gill Keniston-Goble, said: “NHS leaders believe that digital healthcare services can benefit patients, carers and those providing care, by helping more people to stay healthy and well and helping services manage patient demand. Digital technology is rapidly becoming the main way to get information from GPs and to access their services. It’s vital therefore, that digitalisation is used to make it easier and not harder for everyone to get care and support. Listening to public feedback will help GP practices understand how to achieve this.”
Commenting on the report, NHS Somerset said: “We know that many people access NHS services online… Part of the work of NHS Somerset is to help to improve these digital services. Our Digital Outreach Team (DOT) works with all 64 General Practices in Somerset to help them to provide a range of excellent services… We also know that some people cannot use digital services. That is why we are currently working with partners including SPARK Somerset, our local libraries and our GPs, to offer loans of devices and internet connection to those who don’t have them, as well as training sessions via digital champions in the community, and care coordinators at General Practices. This includes how to use websites, how to use the Somerset apps library, how to use the NHS App, and much more. If you’re interested in finding out more, please ask your GP care coordinator who can link with the NHS Somerset DOT team or contact SPARK Somerset. We will use the feedback in this report to help inform this digital improvement work – thank you for sharing it with us.”
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