Future Health launches new research on quality of GP websites

Research reveals the need for upgrading GP websites

New research for the Future Health Research Centre published today (GP Practice Website Assessment PamphletV4) reveals the postcode lottery patients face in accessing up-to-date service information and booking appointments online through GP websites.

Successive GP patient surveys have shown that there is an opportunity to dramatically improve the patient experience of GP websites. Doing so could bring benefits to patients through easier access to services and better sign-posting; and GP practices themselves by reducing unnecessary telephone calls and appointments.

However, whilst there are practices that provide comprehensive health information and advice, clear signposting to other local NHS services, and enable patients to book appointments and request repeat prescriptions and fit notes, many are not delivering on these basic requirements.

The research based on a national sample finds that:

  • 34% of GP practice websites do not offer an ability to book telephone or video consultations online
  • 68% of websites analysed did not provide comprehensive signposting to other local NHS services such as pharmacies and NHS 111, and did not enable patients to input their own postcode to search for such services
  • 40% of practices had no information on vaccinations, including Covid and flu vaccinations
  • Only 28% of practices provide an ability to request a fit note online
  • 31% of sites were found to be difficult to navigate and use for patients, reflecting national figures in the GP patient survey

If the findings from the sample were replicated nationally, over 10.5 million patients in England would not have access to an adequate and functional GP website.

With NHS services heading into a difficult winter, primary care experiencing record high volumes and more patients accessing and searching for health information online, improving GP websites could help reduce unnecessary calls to surgeries and help support patients.

To deliver the upgrade needed an urgent targeted investment is required. Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) should be assigned funding to work with their Primary Care Networks (PCNs) on upgrading websites in their region this winter, with a project manager appointed to oversee the process. These upgrades should include the latest health, vaccination and access information. A pot of £5-10m should be assigned to the task. This money could be resourced either from winter pressures funding or diverted underspend from within the Unified Technology Fund.

Richard Sloggett, Programme Director, Future Health at a former Special Adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care said “Primary care is under more and more pressure as we head into winter and we need as many routes open as possible for patients to access the information and care they need. GP websites are receiving increasing traffic but as this research shows, many need upgrading to support better patient care and to alleviate system pressures. The Government and NHS England should urgently upgrade primary care websites as part of their winter planning. A relatively small but urgent investment could make a big difference.”

Rachel Power, Chief Executive, Patients Association said: “This research challenges the frequent claims that primary care has gone digital. It shows many patients still have to phone their general practice to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions or request a fit note, but many patients still contact us to let us know how difficult it can be to get through to their practice on the phone.

“We agree with the recommendations and support the call for the Government to fund Integrated Care Systems and Primary Care Networks to support practices develop better websites that give patients access to services, which will also reduce pressure on reception and administrative staff, as well as GPs.”

Jacob Lant, Head of Policy and Research at Healthwatch England, said:

“Over the course of the pandemic the NHS put to bed the idea that it can’t use digital technologies to improve the way care is delivered. But as this research highlights, there is still some way to go before every GP surgery in the country is delivering the full range of online services that patients have come to expect.

“With GP services under huge strain, it is vital that the sector is better supported to bring all websites up to spec. And the best way for practices to improve their online offer is to speak to those trying to use their websites to find out what’s working and what’s not.  

“Done badly, websites can significantly increase the level of frustration patients experience when trying to access care. But when done well they can reduce pressure on phonelines, help patients manage simple requests like repeat prescriptions and generally make things more efficient. Crucially, making the maximum use of online services can also help free up time and resource to help those who struggle with digital access.”

across their Primary Care Network and some sites will require less resource as their website will already be mature and well developed.