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The NHS App and its central role in the fight against COVID-19

The NHS App, launched 3 years ago, has become a crucial tool in the fight against COVID-19, and has changed the way millions of adults in England now access healthcare services. 

Many of NHS Digital’s programmes were in the pipeline before COVID-19 struck, but the pandemic and an uptake of digital services forced their development to be accelerated – and the NHS App was no exception.

The NHS App turns 3 with 22 million users

Launched in January 2019, the app was already in place when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK in early 2020. Today, it has more than 22 million users and was named the most downloaded free app by UK iPhone users in 2021.  

Since its launch, people have been benefitting from easier access to NHS services. The app provides a simple and secure way for the public to access healthcare services from their smartphone or tablet, enabling people to manage their care at a time, and from a place, most convenient to them. To date, more than 10.4 million repeat prescriptions have been ordered and more than 1.1 million GP appointments have been booked via the app, saving valuable time for patients and clinicians.

Additionally, more than 316,000 people have used the NHS App to manage their organ donation decision, with over 151,000 preferences recorded over the last 6 months. Registering a preference helps NHS specialist nurses to quickly understand what people want to happen to their organs and enables them to discuss the patient’s wishes directly with their family.

The NHS COVID Pass is used for sharing COVID-19 vaccination records or test results when travelling abroad or attending certain events and venues domestically (although this is now voluntary). The addition of the COVID Pass led to a rapid increase in registrations for the app. There were over 18 million registrations for the NHS App following the addition of the COVID Pass on 17 May 2021. More than 140 million COVID Passes have also been generated through the NHS App and NHS website since the service was added last May.

Messaging services in the NHS App

Another benefit of the NHS App is the use of messaging services for health and care providers which is giving users more choice in how they receive messages and interact with healthcare professionals. Messages are delivered almost instantaneously and are free for senders.

Test and Trace and the COVID-19 vaccination programme have also seen increased digital uptake, and our research tells us that users now expect to receive digital communications from the services they use, and to use digital channels to manage their health. In user research we conducted with the Digital Transformation of Screening programme, we found that 79% of users were likely or extremely likely to move to a digital communication channel if it was possible.

Messaging services in the app have been used during the pandemic to encourage blood plasma donations and to alert users to new services. Our user research shows that patients trust the app as a channel and act on the messages they receive through it.

When we sent a message encouraging eligible patients in one area to sign up to their personal health record account, the sign-up rate for the following 10 days nearly doubled, with an increase of 88% on the 10-day period before the message.

Senders will be able easily to integrate NHS App notifications and messaging into their services. We can provide message status analytics and reporting to understand, for example, how many users have opened the message, allowing for back-up messages to be sent by other methods if needed. The NHS App can currently support the sending of 3.4 million in-app messages and associated push notifications each day, within a 16-hour window. Over the coming months we will be developing our notification and messaging capability further.

An environmental impact

The NHS App, like other digital healthcare technology, is having a positive impact on the environment and is helping NHS Digital reduce its carbon footprint.    

Patients managing appointments and completing online consultations through the NHS App means that fewer visits by car or taxi are made to GP practices. In financial year 2020-21, 247,000 GP appointments were managed, and over 200,000 online consultations were completed through the NHS App (reporting up to December 2020), resulting in a reduction of approximately 386 tonnes of CO2.

Additional CO2 savings are expected to be linked (but have not been estimated) to the notifications and messages capability of the NHS App, the 12.9m record accesses and 2.9m prescriptions ordered through the NHS App in financial year 2020-21.

Looking ahead

The NHS App will continue to play an essential part in keeping people safe during the pandemic, adapting to ever-changing needs in the face of new coronavirus variants, as well as continuing to change the way millions of adults in England access healthcare services today and in the future.

First published by Public Sector Focus on 24 February 2022.

Last edited: 2 March 2022 10:32 am