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The NHS waitlist problem: 6.4 million waiting – are patient portals the solution?

By Clare Rafferty, Head of Business Development and Partnerships at Netcall

Earlier this year the NHS’s waitlist hit a record 6.4 million, the highest recorded total since records began in 2007. The COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented pressure on the NHS as it prioritised treating COVID patients and providing urgent life-saving treatments and procedures. This has caused mounting cost pressures and a rapidly growing backlog of people waiting for hospital procedures and surgeries, with the list of those waiting over a year exceeding 300,000.

Reducing waiting times, however, has been exceptionally difficult following the NHS staffing crisis, which has led to 100,000 employment vacancies. Further, costly Do Not Attends (DNAs) and administrative burdens have persisted, including large spend on paper appointment letters.

The need for digitisation in the healthcare system is clear – it can save costs, improve operational efficiencies and cull through patient backlogs. NHS England has recognised this need, prioritising national investments to the 45 least digitised NHS provider trusts to help increase the rate of digital transformation across the entire healthcare system. The Department of Health and Social Care recently released an updated version of their data strategy, following the Goldacre Review. The review highlighted key issues around siloed and fragmented data management systems causing unnecessary costs and making data insufficiently accessible. The updated plan includes a £25 million fund, from 2022 to 2023, to drive digital transformation. Patient portals are a valuable investment area for NHS organisations because of their ability to drive patient engagement, manage appointments and resolve concerns faster. Automating the appointment management process gives health workers much needed time back, reduces costly DNAs, helps avoid wasted patient journeys with pre-screenings and improves patient experiences.

However, special care needs to be taken to ensure that any implemented solution brings all patients along on the journey, accommodating those that prefer analogue services whilst still providing the gains of digital transformation. How do hospitals make sure no patient gets left behind? By choosing a solution that connects an organisation’s patient portal with its booking and contact centre technology, all patients are accommodated as choice is enhanced rather than narrowed.

Patient portal: gateway to digital transformation

NHS England is on a mission to “exploit the full potential of digital technologies”. The COVID-19 recovery plan includes the use of digital tools and data to effectively manage waiting lists and better support staff and patients along the way. Whilst progress towards a digitally enabled healthcare system is necessary, many trusts are struggling with digital transformation demands and cost pressures.

However, there are cost-effective options that offer relatively quick returns on investments and the opportunity for incremental digitisation. Patient portals, when designed to accommodate and integrate all tech, digital and analogue needs, are a great place to start because they offer immediate tangible value to patients, staff and the organisation.

In one striking example, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (HHFT), was able to reduce their number of letter templates from 8,000 to three – a 99.9% reduction. This is significant given the laborious and error-prone nature of this process. With overloaded staff picking amongst thousands of templates to find the right letter head, it’s easy to see why mistakes are made.

Many of us have first-hand experience with one of these letters arriving past our appointment date or containing inaccurate or inconsistent details. A patient portal resolves this by creating letters using available metadata, ensuring the accuracy of its contents. The digitised system guarantees timely delivery for patients that opt into digital messages and saves up to 65% of postage and printing costs and countless hours of administration time. HHFT’s digital uptake of their portal reached 65% in just three months, which means many patients benefited from the system change almost immediately. With proficient patient portals, digital uptake rates among patients can reach up to 70% within three months of deployment. Such rates enhance portals’ built-in potential for incorporating specialty applications, such as clinical portals, because patients already using the portal will be able to seamlessly utilise newly released connected portals and services.

However, this level of patient adoption is only possible when patients are still supported on their channel of choice – some will move online, some will continue to want communication via phone or letters, and some will use a combination.

All patients should be afforded an end-to-end experience and entitled to contact their health providers in the way that best accommodates them. By connecting portals to contact centres, patients that prefer to avoid digital channels aren’t lost in the transition. Their information is included, providing advisors with access to data they need to best deal with and understand patient queries, and allowing patients to avoid repeat explanations or the loss of vital information.

The bridge between legacy and advanced technologies

NHS trusts use a broad mix of backend systems, which can make it difficult to find a solution that integrates well. Effective patient portals are designed to work with a broad mix of backend systems.

This is especially important when it comes to Integrated Care Systems (ICSs), referring to the system of partnerships and organisations joining forces to deliver health and care services, replacing the previous locally-led system. If you have five hospitals working together, each with their own electronic patient record and systems, these need to feel and look the same for patients and staff across the network. On the front end, data needs to seamlessly interoperate across infrastructures that work the same despite operating on a foundation of different systems across the ICS. The government has made digital pledges but without the right strategy and partners these goals can’t be realised. The right digital gateway for appointment management will ease the burden on organisations and their staff and deliver overdue service to waiting patients regardless of whether they want to communicate through digital channels or more traditional letters and calls.

Appointments can be prioritised, managed 24/7 and reallocated, enabling full utilisation of hospital resources and driving waiting list figures down.

Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust made its appointment management easier and less stressful for parents and carers by adopting a patient portal that offers 24/7 access and centralises information, making the right information accessible as needed. Overall, patient portals have already arranged almost two and a half million digital patient appointments across almost 500 hospitals.

A proactive healthcare system

Beyond appointment management, well-integrated patient portals offer the real-time data hospitals need to gain visibility and control over all channels. With this data, organisations can combine patient portals with low-code and robotic process automation (RPA) to unleash artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, enabling data-driven insights and customising their solution to meet their specific needs.

Disjointed gaps are replaced by a streamlined, integrated, end-to-end digital health platform that leaves no patient behind whilst simultaneously unburdening staff. Insights can be used to observe trends, adapt existing processes and see what systems would benefit from digitisation.

Our overstretched healthcare system and its workers need help to address the current waiting list and staffing crises. While the idea of a massive digital overhaul sounds great, it’s not realistic for all hospitals. Instead, the wonder of an effective patient portal is that it enables hospitals and patients at different digital maturity levels to work together to mitigate the current crisis and usher in the new era of healthcare. By ensuring seamless unbroken journeys, no patient is left behind and the NHS is given much needed relief, helping them clear the growing patient waiting list.

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