Configuring Online Appointment Booking in NHS Practices: A Consultant’s Guide

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Online booking isn’t just a fancy add-on. It’s transformational. Benefits for practices include reduced unplanned visits, fewer phone call bookings, substantial time savings, and a 21% decrease in missed appointments, as per 2021 NHS data.

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The Journey of Online Booking

Back in 2015, a mandate rolled out necessitating practices to offer patients the option to book and cancel appointments online. Fast forward to 2019, and this requirement evolved, demanding a considerable proportion of these appointments be available for direct online booking. Practices were also urged to promote this feature.

The 2022/23 GP contract refines this further. All appointments, unless requiring triage, should be bookable online, via telephone, or in person. This includes diverse types such as GP appointments, nurse visits, and others. Surprisingly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, some practices withdrew their online booking system. As of early 2023, 8% haven’t reinstated this feature, despite the clear contractual obligation.

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For clarity on current contract stipulations, it’s prudent to regularly check the National GP Contract Regulations and NHS England GP contract pages.

From my experience, most practices can seamlessly transition to online booking. However, the influx of appointment requests necessitates triage and evaluation. It’s crucial to balance appointment availability with local population needs, preventing unintentional disparities.

Another observation: A mere ‘first come, first served’ policy might not truly mirror patient needs or ensure equitable treatment.

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Establishing Online Booking – A Comprehensive Guide

1. Configuration: Before diving deep into this system, ensure your clinical infrastructure supports online booking. Staff configuration is paramount, and quick updates on personnel changes are recommended.

2. System Features: Personalise your system. From routine to face-to-face appointments, decide the offerings. Engage with your patient participation group for refining the service. Only the patient-facing appointments should be listed as bookable.

3. Rota & Appointment Types: Structuring clinical rotas and appointment categories is crucial for user-friendliness. For instance, instead of using technical terms like ‘phlebotomy’, a straightforward ‘blood test’ is more understandable. It’s pivotal that appointment descriptions be crystal clear to avoid any confusion.

4. Decide Your Offering: You have the flexibility to decide which appointments to put online. For instance, only displaying routine appointments and not urgent ones provides more control.

5. Limit Appointment Holdings: Implementing a cap on how many appointments a patient can hold is a wise decision. This avoids blockage and keeps slots available for others.

6. Messaging Integration: Connect your messaging system. Automated reminders significantly reduce no-shows. Choose a reliable commercial service for this purpose.

7. Promote: Be proactive. Let your patients know of this feature, especially when you’re rolling out specific services. And remember, patient participation groups can be invaluable allies in this endeavour.

Benefits & Barriers

Online booking isn’t just a fancy add-on. It’s transformational. Benefits for practices include reduced unplanned visits, fewer phone call bookings, substantial time savings, and a 21% decrease in missed appointments, as per 2021 NHS data.

Patients, on the other hand, experience fewer surgery visits, reduced wait times, 24/7 access, and greater flexibility. Platforms like the NHS App and other commercial providers facilitate this process.

However, like all systems, there are barriers. From the patient’s perspective, it could be a lack of awareness, IT skills, or even mistrust. Practices might struggle with high demand, inappropriate bookings, or capacity issues. Through my experience, clear communication and engagement are crucial in overcoming these barriers.

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The Importance of Accurate Data Collection

Understanding appointment and activity data plays a pivotal role in enhancing services. The GP appointment data (GPAD) initiative by NHS England and the BMA seeks to ensure accuracy and standardisation. Click here for more information on enabling accurate reporting through standards. This information helps in strategic planning, understanding service impact, and informing national policies.

The goal? To achieve the vision of digital-first primary care as outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan.

In conclusion, my time at Hanley Consulting and the broader healthcare landscape has shown me that digital integration is not a choice—it’s a necessity. Let’s harness this digital wave and ride it towards more efficient and patient-centric healthcare.

And remember, Hanley Consulting can support you with clinical systems configuration, patient outreach and engagement, product analysis, option papers and all of the aforementioned steps in enabling online appointment bookings at your practice or PCN. Please contact us to discuss with one of our team.

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