The NHS 111 online service was an increasingly important feature of the NHS’s interface with the public before March 2020. It was used 5.6 million times between April 2018 and March 2019, increasing to 23.4 million times between April 2019 and March 2020. On 16 March alone, there were almost 950,000 user sessions. In February, about 17% of NHS 111 enquiries were digital. That had increased to 80% by the end of March, with up to 87% of all coronavirus triages being carried out online in the second half of March.
We improved the online service’s functionality through the year. After a pilot in Cheshire and Merseyside, we rolled out direct referrals from NHS 111 online to pharmacies, helping cut load on NHS 111 call handlers and GPs. During the crisis, we constantly reviewed advice to reflect changing government and clinical guidance and used the service as a platform for some of the most important digital support offered to the public.
The coronavirus crisis also dramatically increased the use of the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) as GP practices sought to deliver prescriptions to community pharmacies without a patient having to collect their paper prescription. As a result, we saw greater use of the nominated service, where patients choose which pharmacy should automatically receive and dispense their prescriptions, with usage increasing from 73% in February to 78% in March.
We made two key improvements to EPS during the year. First, we made it possible for controlled drugs in schedules 2 and 3 to be prescribed and dispensed using the system.
About 95% of GP practices can now do this and average use of EPS increased by about five percentage points in practices with this capability. We can also now allow patients to use EPS without having nominated a community pharmacy. We expect average use of EPS to increase to 95% during 2020.
The new GP IT framework Digital Care Services was launched in January 2020 and allows GP practices to choose from 69 suppliers offering about 250 IT solutions based on shared, open standards. More than 95% of practices have fully implemented SNOMED CT, a structured clinical vocabulary that supports effective information sharing across electronic systems, and our GP Connect programme has made it much easier for practices using different systems to view each others’ records.
The National Events Management Service (NEMS), launched in private beta in March 2019, improves the sharing of information about children’s contacts with healthcare. Historically, if something important happened to a child – like visiting A&E or changing their GP – it often took time for professionals to find out about it. NEMS records these ‘events’ securely in real time and allows authorised services to subscribe to updates.
A health visiting service in north-east London reported that health visitors were getting notice of child deaths three to four days earlier in some cases, reducing the risk of families receiving contacts from professionals who had not been informed.