26 March 2018
All first outpatients' referrals will have to be made electronically from later this year in a move that is set to save the NHS at least £50 million2.
Patients will be able to choose an appointment at a time and date that suits them, which is expected to halve the rate of patients missing appointments from 10 per cent to five per cent, when GPs refer patients using the NHS e-Referral service (e-RS) from 1 October 2018.
In 2016/17 there were almost eight million outpatient appointments that patients didn't attend - the equivalent of 6.7 per cent of the total number of appointments in England.
The switch to electronic only referrals will mean doctors and patients will be able to see in advance which services are available and how quickly the patient can be seen.
Patients can book or alter appointments online at www.nhs.uk/referrals using a mobile phone or tablet which will save the GP practice time and cuts the NHS's phone bill.
NHS Digital has launched the 'Just e-Referrals' campaign to help support trusts as they prepare to hit the target.
Currently 19 trusts have already achieved paper switch-off, with more in line to do so before the end of March.
Most trusts have agreed target dates for all referrals to be electronic ahead of the October deadline, with individual trust goals published on the NHS Digital website.
Patient Alex Dwiar, from south London, said: "I think the NHS e-Referral Service really tightens up the whole process of booking a hospital appointment, because you or your doctor can book an appointment instantly.
"This prevents you having to wait for an appointment through the post and it enables you to see waiting times at different hospitals, which is really useful as you might choose a hospital further away if it means being seen more quickly.
"The e-Referral Service is so much easier and more convenient for patients."
Dr Stephen Miller, National Medical Director of the e-RS programme within NHS Digital, said: "The NHS e-Referral Service helps to relieve the burden on GPs by cutting down on their paperwork and reducing the number of patients who go back to them to find out what is happening with their hospital appointment.
"The system also reduces the risk of letters going missing and allows doctors to more easily track their patients' referrals."
Steve Firman, the senior responsible owner for the e-referral programme at NHS England, said: "Fully switching to electronic referrals will have benefits right across the NHS, from cutting the burden on clinician's time as well as giving patients more choice of date, time and location of their appointments."
Alex Bickerton, a consultant at Yeovil Hospital, one of the trusts that has made the switch to electronic referrals, said: "I think e-RS is undoubtedly the way forward.
"It is a slick way at looking at referrals and from my point-of-view it means I am not reliant on being in my office and my secretary handing me paper referrals and I can look at referrals and vet referrals at any time.
"For example, if I have a patient that doesn't turn up and I am in clinic, I can look at those referrals and I have got 10 minutes spare I can do some of that work, so the work gets done quicker and more efficiently as well."
Dr Chris Markwick, GP at Carmel Medical Practice in Darlington, said: "e-RS provides a quick and easy way to book appointments online for GPs, their staff and patients. Time from first consultation in primary care to first appointment in secondary care is reduced.
"You can compare waiting times from a variety of providers and offer patients an informed choice.
"e-RS has enormous benefits for patients in terms of shortening their waiting time. It also allows you to compose and share a referral letter with the patient present, ensuring they are kept informed and understand what the referral is for and that it is accurate.
"This can also form the basis of your notes. e-RS gives you the assurance of knowing when the patient's appointment is going to be, which, if there is a long wait, allows you to plan any follow-up you might need before they are seen."
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Notes to editors
NHS Digital is the national information and technology partner of the health and care system. Our team of information analysis, technology and project management experts create, deliver and manage the crucial digital systems, services, products and standards upon which health and care professionals depend. During the 2016/17 financial year, NHS Digital published 292 statistical reports. Our vision is to harness the power of information and technology to make health and care better.
The Outpatient Pathway Modelling Tool (OPMT) compares a service provider's current referral management processes with a best practice model. It can be used to calculate where greater benefit can be achieved by identifying areas where time and cost efficiencies could be made through the referral process. In a report entitled NHS e-Referral Service Realising the Benefits in 2014, the National Audit Office (NAO) used the information contained in 91 completed OPMT returns to calculate the total savings that could be realised by secondary care providers using choose and book.
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