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GPs must offer email access to patients by 2015, says DH

GPs will have to arrange online appointment booking and a secure email system for patients to contact their practice by 2015, in a move to make the NHS more ‘customer friendly' the health secretary promised today.

Andrew Lansley announced the plans as he pledged to end the ‘8am rush' of people phoning GP surgeries and promised that repeat prescriptions and test results would also accessible online.

Practices will have to appoint a lead GP to organise better electronic access, organising secure lines of communication for patients and direct access to records to ‘anyone registered with the practice that requests these services'.

He also reiterated a Government promise for all patients to be able to access their full medical records within three years, although he stopped short of NHS Future Forum suggestions to allow patients to add and correct their own records.

The Government's 10-year NHS Information Strategy says: ‘By 2015, all general practices will be expected to make available electronic booking and cancelling of appointments, ordering of repeat prescriptions, communication with the practice and access to records to anyone registered with the practice that requests these services.'

It will also allow other healthcare professionals to access GP records – with the patient's permission – and allows researchers to access anonymised data from the medical records.

A new NHS website will be launched by 2013 to act as a ‘one-stop shop' where patients can access information about the quality and performance of their local health services, and will be encouraged to give feedback.

Mr Lansley said the change will reduce ‘the hassle of calling switchboards and trying to find the right person to speak to' and would increase patient power.

He said: ‘The internet has revolutionised how people shop, bank and travel, and for too long health and care services have not been part of that revolution.

‘Our strategy proposals will ensure that these services will become easier to understand, easier to access and will drive up standards of care.

 ‘It's time to make patient-power a reality and take the hassle out of using the health service.'

Dr Laurence Buckman, GPC chair, welcomed some aspects of the strategy, but warned: 'We would caution against the potential use of email for consultations, because compared to a telephone or face-to-face consultation it is difficult for GPs to assess someone quickly and safely this way.

'All patients need to be confident that their records are held safely otherwise they may not feel comfortable talking to their GP about confidential issues.'

Dr John Cormack, a GP in South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, said he welcomed widening online access to patients, but said the workload involved in opening up their records would be ‘absolutely crazy'.

He said: ‘It's going to involve so much checking and changing. It's the sort of thing politicians dream up without the foggiest idea of how much chaos they'll cause.

‘The risks to confidentiality and security are huge, as is the amount of work for GPs. I'm in a single-handed practice and it just couldn't be done here. Maybe on planet Westminster but not here.'