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Patients shun ’email-your-GP’ pilots as doubts grow over DH pledge for 24/7 online access

Exclusive: The Government's controversial vision of 24/7 online access to GPs has been dealt a severe blow with the news only 89 patients from a potential total of at least 30,000 have agreed to take part in pilots of its Communicator system.

Healthspace Communicator, which provides patients with email access to GPs via a secure online platform, is being piloted at six sites across England, the locations of which the Department of Health refuses to divulge.

But Pulse has learned that only 36 doctors have agreed to take part, one pilot has already been forced to close and another practice has pulled out amid claims that all correspondence had to be updated manually into patients' notes.

The response from patients and GPs comes in contrast to comments made last month by Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of the NHS, that online consultations with GPs ‘open up the spectre of 24/7 access'.

The DH admitted just 89 patients had signed up for pilots and that the business case for Communicator was ‘under review'. Only 3,119 people have registered for an advanced account and 182,000 for a basic account on the umbrella Healthspace system since 2009 – compared with a projected four million people by 2014.

Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, a GP in north London and author of a study of Healthspace, said ‘the numbers are very low', and that it was ‘interesting' the DH was still reviewing the business case: ‘They are still framing this as a problem that needs a technical fix, rather than engaging with the more complex issue of whether and how people manage their health.'

Pulse reported in March 2009 that pilots were running in north London and Bury were expected to start in Salford and Sheffield. However, NHS Salford told Pulse: ‘We were not able to progress due to reasons relating to information governance.'

A practice that piloted the scheme in Harrow, north London, dropped out when the GP leading it left. Vikki Young, IT manager at the surgery, said: ‘We made the decision we would not continue. You can't merge it into our existing medical records, so whatever is communicated, every single message, needs to be printed and scanned onto the records.'

Dr John Hampson, a GP in Bury who took part in one of the pilots, had a positive experience: ‘[Communicator] hasn't caused significant workload and enables GPs and patients to send messages at a convenient time.'

But Dr Robert Koefman, a GP in Bracknell, Berkshire, was sceptical: ‘I'm on call today and I've done 12 phone calls already. You want to give me another 25 emails? It's just not workable.' 


What is Communicator?

Communicator is part of the NHS's Healthspace project which allows GPs to have secure electronic contact with patients, similar to an email. Starting in 2009, the system has been piloted in different care settings across six locations, including London and Bury, and there are currently 36 clinicians and 89 patients signed up.

Source: Connecting for Health