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Giving patients online records access ‘cuts appointment demand by 12%’

Practices who give at least a third of their patients full online access to their records may experience a decrease in appointment demand of up to 12%, GP researchers have claimed.

An unpublished study at two practices where substantial numbers of patients are already accessing their records has concluded that if almost a third of patients access their medical records online twice a year in a practice of 10,000 patients, almost 5,000 appointments and 8,000 telephone calls can be saved annually.

The surprise result comes after Dr Paul Cundy, chair of the GPC’s IT subcommitee, warned that increasing online access to general practice, including access to medical records, will lower the threshold at which patients will communicate with health services and therefore result in a significant increase in workload for GPs.

But the pilot study by Dr Brian Fisher, a GP in south east London, and Dr Richard Fitton and Dr Amir Hannan, both GPs in Manchester, found that online access to records saved patients’ time and journeys to the practice.

Patients who had accessed their records twice a year or more were identified. They were asked how many appointments they booked over the last 12 months, and how many appointments were saved due to record access.

One practice calculated that the total expense of offering online access to records, including staff time, was £46.15 per patient per year, while the other estimated the cost to be only £4.35 per patient per year.

Dr Fisher said: ‘The study suggests that, using the national consultation rate of 5.3% annually, accessing records twice a year seems to release 11.5% of appointments with other significant resource savings.’

Dr Fisher said that as the practices concerned were leaders in their field with regard to offering online access to medical records, it could be difficult to extrapolate the results.

But he said the study did show that introducing online record access can save practices time. He said: ‘Patients can look at their test results so they don’t have to phone the practice, and practices can write patients’ notes in their records so they don’t have to come in. So if you use it intelligently, you can harness record access to save yourself time.’

He added that these findings were in line with the majority of research from the US: ‘It does correlate with studies in the US that found similar figures. Two or three US studies show it saves time, but it’s important to mention that one doesn’t.’

Plans for all patients to be able to access their medical records online by 2015 were first laid out in Chancellor George Osborne’s Growth Review in 2011, and are now being incentivised through a new DES.