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'Email-your-GP' plan shelved amid fears over patient take-up

By Steve Nowottny

Plans to give patients across the country direct email access to their GP have been shelved, amid fears over costs and mounting concern over low patient take-up.

The HealthSpace Communicator tool, which Pulse revealed last November was being rolled out nationally to carry out e-consultations, manage patients with long-term conditions and triage demand for appointments, only began its first pilot last month.

But Pulse has learnt that although the pilots will continue, plans for a much wider rollout have been put on hold, in the latest blow to the beleaguered National Programme for IT.

The Department of Health had been due to submit a business case for an expansion of the HealthSpace website, costing an estimated £80m, to the Treasury.

But the expansion has now been frozen and staff reassigned while NHS IT bosses rethink the future of the project.

In March Pulse revealed the scale of Connecting for Health's grandiose ambitions for the HealthSpace site, which included the Communicator tool and a range of other functions.

It was hoped that by 2014 up to four million patients would use the site to book appointments, view their care record, keep a personal health organiser and even submit digital photos to allow ailments such as ulcers to be monitored.

But HealthSpace take-up has been disappointing so far, with just a few hundred full users registering. Last year it emerged that patients in Bury, the second area to adopt the Summary Care Record, had shown such little interest that the PCT was forced to beg its own staff to sign up.

Pulse reported earlier this month how trials of the HealthSpace Communicator facility had already left practices admitting it would be hard to pick and choose exactly who had access to the service.

While Connecting for Health claimed GPs would control which patients could use it, GPs at a pilot site in Harrow, north west London, warned it would be difficult to withhold it from all patients within a certain disease category once it had been used for some.

The trial will still continue and a Department of Health spokesperson said piloting the HealthSpace Communicator function would help shape the future of the service.

He said: ‘HealthSpace exists to help patients manage their own healthcare needs. Consequently it should be based on what patients want, rather than an expectation of what they need.'

‘This period of time is crucial to developing the future directions for the service and involves a redistribution of current resources, including staff, so that efforts are directed appropriately.'

Dr Neil Bhatia, a campaigner on IT issues and a GP in Yateley, Hampshire, said: ‘I don't think it's the end, in the sense that they will still offer HealthSpace and Communicator, but it won't be heavily promoted.'

‘Personally, I can't see the Communicator catching on. Few GPs will really use it for clinical diagnosis and why use it for administrative stuff when the ubiquitous email will do, or telephone for that matter?'

Email your GP rollout shelved Email your GP rollout shelved

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