Kicking open the digital front door of the NHS

Ben Davison and Suzy Foster

As part of our weekly Health Insider series, NHS Digital’s Executive Director for Product Development, Ben Davison, looks at how services like NHS 111 and the NHS website are helping to put healthcare in the hands of people.  And CEO of EMIS Health, Suzy Foster, talks about how video conferencing is scaling up in general practice and community pharmacy to provide support for those who have healthcare needs which can be dealt with in the community.


Head of Health Innovation
Engine MHP

Kicking open the digital front door of the NHS

The pace and ingenuity of the NHS response to COVID-19 has been remarkable. The digital transformation which has taken place in some areas of the NHS in the last five weeks has been on a larger scale than the gains that have been made in the last five years.

While we are still in the heart of the crisis it is difficult to think about some of the long-term gains which will be part of the legacy of COVID-19, but necessity is the maker of change. The adoption of technology, more widespread roll out of digital tools, and utilisation of data will be part of the new normal for patients and NHS staff when we begin to get back to business as usual.

In this Health Insider, we are focusing on how the digital front door of the NHS is being kicked open. Ben Davison, NHS Digital’s Executive Director for Product Development looks at how services like NHS 111 and the NHS website are helping to put healthcare in the hands of people. And Suzy Foster, CEO of EMIS Health talks about how video conferencing is scaling up in general practice and community pharmacy to provide support for those who have healthcare needs which can be dealt with in the community.

It is impossible to say what the long-term impact of COVID-19 will have on the NHS, but better use of digital technology will be one of the areas where we have made gains through necessity.



NHS Digital’s Executive Director for Product Development

Power in the palms of the people: how digital tools are helping during COVID-19

Research earlier this month shows 38% of people have increased their use of NHS technology since the start of the Coronavirus outbreak.

The survey carried out by nfpSynergy asked 1000 people if they were using more NHS technology (such as apps and websites) as a result of the outbreak, and 26% agreed that their NHS tech usage had increased, while a further 12% strongly agreed.

These are of course unprecedented times, but with social distancing now the norm for everyone, we’re really starting to see digital technologies come to the fore.

The NHS website is one of the biggest health-related websites in the world. It usually attracts around 30 million visits a month, but during March 2020 visit numbers more than doubled – reaching their highest ever of 61m. The COVID-19 content pages had more than 28 million visits alone.

The NHS App, which enables people to access a range of NHS services on their smartphone or tablet, has seen similar increases – with monthly registrations up 111% – from 56,655 in February to 119,512 in March.

The number of repeat prescription requests made via the app also increased to an all time high in March (98,984) – up 97% from 50,341 in February.

NHS 111 online has seen some of the biggest increases of all, as the public helped to ease demands on the 111 telephone services by getting urgent healthcare advice online.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, NHS 111 online averaged 10k users every day (8k during the week and 12k on a weekend).

During March 2020, NHS 111 online had nearly 17 million users, which is a daily average of around 550,000. On its busiest day last month (March 17), it had nearly a million users (950k).

Good technology is making it possible for doctors, nurses and other health professionals to continue to deliver care remotely where possible and freeing up time for those patients who need face-to-face care. It’s keeping people well whilst they are isolated with good information and advice and the ability to manage things like prescriptions remotely.

We’re fully prepared for the numbers using NHS tech to continue increasing over the coming days and weeks, as the general public continue to play a key role in helping to ease the burden on our fantastic frontline services.



CEO of EMIS Health

COVID-19: a fast-track to a digital NHS

Technology is a vital weapon in the fight against coronavirus.

With face-to-face contact high risk, more and more services have moved online, with primary care in particular transforming how it works in a few short weeks.

Online triage, telephone and video consultations are now the norm as GPs reconfigure services to support patients while protecting themselves and their staff.

As the UK’s largest provider of healthcare software and services, EMIS Group is at the heart of this transformation.

We have rapidly scaled up our ability to deliver remote connectivity to our core clinical system, so GPs can continue to access patient records from any location.

And we are supporting the escalation of new, remote ways of working such as video and online consultations, which reduce visits to surgeries and help prevent the risk of practice closure.

Opening the digital front door

Prior to COVID-19, some GP practices were using video consultations, but most were not. Online consultations were more common but still not extensively used. But the impetus to embed these new techniques has become essential.

To help practices make the transition, we have rolled-out video consultation software and online triage software, with training, free of charge. If fully adopted, this has the potential to give 35 million people access to video consultations with an NHS GP.

The need to adapt also extends to community pharmacy; video consultations can protect their staff and expand their reach even further into the community. Our video consultation, software is now helping these vital frontline clinicians do more for patients, relieving pressure on other services.

The tools to provide this ‘digital front door’ have long existed. This crisis has flung it wide open and I believe the pandemic will be a milestone for digital adoption in the NHS.

Empowering patients

Digital healthcare isn’t just about clinicians, it’s about patients too – if the right tools are there, people will use them.

People are looking for trusted sources of clinically-authored information. We have seen an exponential rise in the use of our free Patient Access app, and in new registrations. Services like this relieve pressure on GPs and NHS 111. A clinically-authored coronavirus symptom checker was completed by 240,000 people in just two weeks, demonstrating that people want to be empowered to look after their own health.

Looking ahead

Will the pandemic fast-track the move to a fully digital NHS? No-one can predict that, but I can say with certainty that by putting digital healthcare in the spotlight, this crisis has highlighted the vital role it can play in the efficient delivery of care.

We must try to ensure that momentum continues into the future; that the rapid innovation and collaborative working we have seen becomes the norm, and that there is a positive outcome from this terrible situation.



Senior Account Executive
Engine MHP

Finding new ways and means

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this crisis – and Parliament’s response to it – is no exception. MPs and Peers will return, either physically or virtually, on Tuesday to a Parliament where the show must go on. Bills still need to be passed, questions still need to be tabled, and the scrutiny of Government business must continue. How successful parliamentarians will be in performing these functions in this brave new world remains unclear.

Technological investment has been rapid, with all MPs and their staff now set up on Zoom (much like the rest of us!). Commons leaders unveiled a ‘hybrid’ model yesterday, whereby some MPs will be ‘zoomed-in’ remotely to PMQs and other sessions, supplemented by a select few who will be sitting – two-metres apart – on the green and red benches. For an institution that took so long to introduce television cameras to the chambers, and where Wi-Fi signal is patchy, this is no mean feat.

It will also be fascinating to see how the technological advances prompted by this crisis will endure after it is all over: if remote working practices can bring disparate communities closer to the conversation; if digital voting can streamline parliamentary processes, or if the Punch and Judy politics of Prime Minister’s Questions can be replaced by forensic questioning from an MP’s living room…Now, what’s that meeting ID again?