The Daily Telegraph

Patients to book hospital slots on backlog-busting new NHS app

- By Laura Donnelly Health editor

PATIENTS will be able to book their own hospital appointmen­ts under a “game-changing” plan to restore confidence in the NHS, a senior health official has revealed.

The overhaul is part of efforts to tackle a record backlog, with almost six million people now waiting for treatment and fears that figure could more than double as others come forward.

Under the plans, everyone on waiting lists would be able to contact hospitals directly, via the NHS app or phone. But millions of routine follow-up appointmen­ts are likely to be axed, in an attempt to prioritise those most in need.

Health officials say the scheme would “give the power back to the patient” and mean doctors spend less time on “pointless” appointmen­ts. Four in five of those now on lists are waiting for hospital appointmen­ts, rather than surgery.

Officials say two in three of those waiting for outpatient consultati­ons are “review” checks – which are routinely scheduled every six months for millions of people with long-term conditions, whether or not they are needed.

Under the new scheme, expected to be announced next week, patients who are referred to hospital by their GPS would be given “direct access” to their medical team, enabling them to book a slot at a time that suits them, and seek advice about their condition.

Officials say the system, which they want to introduce “at industrial scale” across the health service, will provide patients with far more informatio­n, including how long they will have to wait to see a doctor, and it could even allow them to schedule tests.

The plans, now under considerat­ion by ministers, would also mean that follow-up appointmen­ts are not given automatica­lly. Instead, patients would be told to contact medical teams if their condition flares up, or they need advice, with consultant­s encouraged to provide far more advice by phone and online.

Sir Jim Mackey, a hospital chief executive appointed to advise NHS England on the national “elective recovery” plan, said radical measures were needed to rebuild confidence in the NHS and reduce waiting times.

He told NHS managers: “It’s the biggest financial interventi­on for a very long time and the expectatio­n that comes with it does feel very significan­t.

“We’re all seeing a really material change in public attitude this year versus last year,” he warned, saying the public had been “very tolerant” and “too understand­ing” in reducing pressures on the NHS during the pandemic.

“Now they need to get seen. It’s a manifestat­ion of the public really needing to get things sorted out that they feel they are being deprived of.

“We must remember the NHS is their service. It’s owned by the public and we forget that at our peril.”

Sir Jim said it was “wrong” that patients are given so little informatio­n after being referred to hospital – including how long they will have to wait.

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has warned waiting lists are set to surpass six million by the new year and could reach 13 million as more of those who stayed away in the pandemic need help.

The Covid pandemic has exposed many shortcomin­gs in the NHS even as we have been invited to applaud the people who work within it. The impact of lockdowns on other aspects of public health are now well attested, with lengthy backlogs in operations, missed diagnoses and overwhelme­d A&E department­s. Massive extra sums are being poured into the system without any provision being made to reform the way that it works other than at the margins.

The physical closure of many GP surgeries has led to questions over the future of primary care as the way into the rest of the NHS. Getting past these gatekeeper­s is proving ever more difficult. Indeed, one of their functions is to act as a triaging mechanism to stop hospitals being overwhelme­d with patients who don’t need to be there.

As part of an effort to restore public confidence in the system it is now proposed that patients should be able to book their own hospital appointmen­ts once referred by their GPS. The move is described as a “game-changer” under which those on waiting lists can contact the hospital directly and arrange to be seen by a specialist or access tests.

This sounds like a good idea and an example of the sort of innovation the NHS desperatel­y needs. The frustratio­n felt by people at their inability to easily access basic care and advice is evident in the letters page of this newspaper on a regular basis. Health officials say a national scheme along these lines would “give the power back to the patient” though that would only be true if getting an appointmen­t is made easier than it currently is to see a GP. This is a welcome start but much more needs to be done if the game really is to change.

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