MPs have raised concerns about future plans for third-party health apps to be integrated with the NHS app because many do not meet appropriate levels of clinical quality and data privacy.
An inquiry into digital transformation in the NHS also found that the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England must continue to show the value of the NHS app to patients or sign-ups will likely decline.
The Health and Social Care Committee report found that currently the benefits to patients of using the NHS app are not clear with just 8% of GP appointments booked this way as well as limited functions for ordering or managing prescriptions.
And while there are plans to integrate third-party apps in the NHS App to allow people to access NICE approved or GP-recommended products, the lack of systematic and consistent assessment of quality was ‘unacceptable’, with evidence that most apps failed on clinical efficacy, security and cost, the committee said.
MPs found it can be almost impossible for patients to identify quality apps from ones that present risks in terms of efficacy or security.
The NHS Apps library used to have a list of approved apps but that service was decommissioned in 2021.
ORCHA, an organisation an organisation that reviews health and care apps said while the public could have confidence that medication and medical devices had gone through appropriate assurance, the same could not be said for digital health products
They assessed 18,000 health apps against 350+ criteria across clinical/professional assurance, data and privacy, and usability and accessibility and only 20% met acceptable quality thresholds, the inquiry heard.
DHSC and NHS England should also set out a timetable for their plans to introduce a new ‘native’ NHS App which is integrated into user’s phones and will ‘make use of the data collected by the phone to provide personalised health advice and information’ and would mean users having to download it again, the committee said.
Other barriers highlighted by the committee to delivering digital transformation include that parts of the health service still lack even the most basic, functioning IT equipment and a shortage of skilled digital professionals working in the NHS.
It also warned that the Government would need a plan to ensure patients re-download the new NHS app once developed, noting that previous high download rates would have been related to people needing to access their Covid passes.
Health and Social Care Committee chair Steve Brine said: ‘We find reason for optimism in the government’s approach to the digital transformation of the NHS. We know that the NHS app was hugely successful during the pandemic and the government has big plans for it to do more to bring real benefits to patients.
‘However, there are major challenges to overcome. On a visit to the US, we saw digital patient records being used seamlessly in hospitals. Here, it can take more than 15 minutes for a clinician to turn on a PC because kit is outdated. The lack of skilled digital professionals is a further barrier.’
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said NHSE is working with NICE, the MHRA and the Accelerated Access Collaborative, to develop the policy framework for all digital health technologies (including apps) to be assessed against.
‘During the pandemic, millions of people downloaded the NHS App to help them access their healthcare information and we are rolling out new features to its 32 million users to allow them to choose from a minimum of five providers book when booking hospital appointments.’