Published in The Times 8:12:15

Are you part of the NHS digital revolution? Can you book appointments to see your GP online? Or order repeat prescriptions through your practice website and access your notes? If not, why not – because your surgery almost certainly now offers the facility?

In 2012 I promised to eat my hat if Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt met his pledge to drag the NHS into the 21st century by giving every patient access to their online medical records by April of this year.   My hat is safe, but I am not gloating because progress elsewhere has been better than I expected.

97% of GP surgeries in England now offer online appointments, repeat prescription ordering and limited access to records (the rest of the UK is following a similar strategy), but these new services are still only used by a minority of patients.

Online appointments are the most popular with 8.5 million people signed up, and 12% of GP and practice nurse appointments are now booked this way (they can be cancelled online too). Ordering repeat prescriptions comes next with a similar number of people using the service but with just 4% of prescriptions requested online. And records access brings up the rear with just 2.9 million patients registered to use it.

I can understand the poor uptake of record access. Although the Secretary of State for Health initially promised access to all online notes, it was later watered down to just a Summary Care Record (SCR) – a brief overview which includes data like current medication and known allergies. And although some practices offer more advanced access most people still can’t look up the results of their latest scans or blood tests, or see what their GP has written about them.

I don’t think being able to see their SCR is that enticing, but seeing the results of investigations, and the comments of the GP ordering them, would be helpful and save everyone a lot of time and hassle. And I am sure a significant proportion of my patients would like to read their full clinical notes, although they are likely to be disappointed by what they find as they are more boring than most imagine. Sensible doctors have long since stopped making silly comments in the notes which may come back to haunt them. And you are likely to already have access to printed copies of any important correspondence about you (specialists in my area already copy patients in on all letters to their GP).

So while I am not too excited about limited access to notes I struggle to understand why the other services haven’t proved more popular. Getting through to your surgery on the phone can be difficult (our phones ring constantly) and I would relish the opportunity to bypass the receptionist and book online. Indeed, that is exactly what I did when I saw my own GP last month.

And ordering repeat prescriptions is a major pain for all concerned too. The powers-that-be dictate that patients should only be given a month’s supply of medicines at a time to aid cash flow and reduce wastage in the NHS. Systems for re-ordering vary from surgery to surgery, and pharmacy to pharmacy, but doing it through the online facility at the practice website is a lot simpler than ordering in person or via the post (telephone requests are discouraged because of the risk of errors).

I all too aware that not everyone is familiar with the internet, or has access to a computer, but most people are and do, so why don’t more register for these new services? I suspect it is down to poor awareness rather than a lack of desire. So how do you sign up?

Registering couldn’t be simpler. Protocols vary but generally all it requires is that you turn up in person at your surgery with some form of photo identification.   You will be given a user name and password and advised what your services your practice offers. So please give it a go – the greater the uptake, the faster we are likely to get the services we need.


The report on the digitalisation of the NHS by former UK Digital Champion Martha Lane-Fox contains four key recommendations.


  • Free Wi-fi in every NHS building
  • 10% of registered patients to have proper access to their medical records by 2017
  • Targeting the “furthest first” – making sure those most likely to benefit (often the elderly and least computer savvy) are prioritised
  • Better training of NHS workforce to improve digital skills and develop facilities.