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NHS England delays rollout of e-referrals until Spring 2015

The launch of NHS England’s e-Referrals service, due to replace Choose and Book by November 2014, has been pushed back by six months because of delays in the testing and assurance phase.

The new referral system is not expected to go live until spring 2015 to ensure ‘there will be no disruption to patient care for the 40,000 patients who use the service every day’, and NHS England hopes to give a more concrete date next month.

The latest contract includes pledges from the GPC to work to achieve 80% of referrals being made online, and managers have revealed they may introduce sanctions for GPs who don’t switch to the new system.

Previously NHS England has said it hopes that 100% of referrals will be made electronically by 2017, in line with Jeremy Hunt’s vision for achieving a ‘paperless NHS’ by 2018.

The delay comes after the Commons Public Accounts Committee said they were ‘sceptical’ as to whether e-referrals would be any more successful than its predecessor, which has struggle to get beyond 50% uptake for referrals.

An update on the Health and Social Care Information Centre website says: ‘Despite excellent progress in the delivery of the NHS e-Referral Service, the planned “go-live” has been rescheduled to the spring of 2015.

‘The decision has been taken to ensure there is confidence that there will be no disruption to patient care for the 40,000 patients who use the service every day and to ensure over 60 million referrals are safely and securely transferred into the NHS e-Referral Service.’

It adds: ‘There remains however a significant test, assurance and defect resolution activity to complete for us to be able to sign-off the system as ready.’

‘This includes testing how the service functions, how quickly it performs and how it operates with GP and Hospital systems, as well as the NHS Spine. Users and suppliers are actively involved in this testing.’

Pulse revealed last year that Choose and Book would be getting an overhaul, after many GP’s gave up on the system because appointment slots weren’t being made available, or were cancelled by trusts.

The overhaul aims to create a system that is more similar to flight booking websites, creating a single pool of available appointments, rather than multiple ones held at department or hospital level.

But GPs have said that though it is key that the scheme works at launch, a good deal of work will be needed to repair the profession’s lost confidence.

Dr Peter Swinyard, chair of the Family Doctor Association, told Pulse: ‘Patients actually do trust us – curiously, despite the best efforts of the national media – to advise them and guide them through the system. And long may that continue, because we do tend to know the local services and we tend to know the local consultants.

‘The main thing that needs replacing is confidence that the system will work, and be quick and slick. Because if it ain’t quick and slick, we’re under so much pressure for time during consultations, there’s no way we’ll use something that gets clunky.

‘It’s also got to work first time, because if it doesn’t work first time, because if we start using something and it doesn’t work first time we’re going to give up and never come back again.’

Dr John Lockley, a GP in Ampthill, Bedfordshire and a member of the e-Referral s Service programme board and design team told Pulse that the delay was to ensure the system worked first time for GPs, and the health service.

He said: ‘A very important part of my personal remit is to make sure that when people get it on their desk, things don’t go wrong, things don’t hang, there aren’t mistakes things don’t crash etcetera.’

‘And I think we owe it to our GP colleagues to make sure that the transition is as smooth as possible, and although it would have been nice to release it in the middle of November – our original thought – I think we wanted to be capable of assuring people that it is going to be to a high standard.’

Dr Lockley added: ‘Yes, we know Choose and Book has a foul reputation, yes, there are lots of things planned for the future that will make it a lot better. But in the immediate release, what we’re aiming to do is put the new software out and migrate the data across.’