When the DH announced in May this year that all patients would be able to book GP appointments online by 2015, one GP practice was way ahead of the curve.
The Robin Lane Medical Centre in Leeds has become the first practice to develop an app that allows patients to use their smartphones to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions and interact with the practice in other ways.
Methven Forbes (pictured), business partner at the 11,500-patient practice in Pudsey, says: ‘People use their smartphones for all sorts of things – to get information, order pizza, make bookings – and we saw the opportunity to use that for connecting with patients.’
The practice first thought of developing an app ‘a couple of years ago’, Mr Forbes says. ‘But back then, the cost was too high. We looked into it again this year and the cost had come down significantly. The whole app development cost £5,000.’
How was the app developed?
Staff and partners at the practice sat down together and thought through how the app should be laid out, and how it should work. Once they had come up with a template, the next stage was to find a software company to work with them.
Mr Forbes searched on Google and 'looked at a range of developers and stuff they had done before'. Deciding who to work with was made easier as he comes from a web design and graphic design background: 'There were things I was looking for; technical ability, have they done this before, is it successful, can I download now and test it?'
Customer service was important as the whole design stage involves a lot of interaction between the people procuring the app and the designers. 'The firm we chose looked at least as good as any one else we could see,' says Mr Forbes.
There were four clearly defined stages:
1. Drawing up flowcharts and discussions on how the app should work.
2. Designing the app, with real working examples.
3. Adding graphics, functionality and ability to display dynamic content.
4. Signing off on the design and uploading to Apple's App Store and Andriod stores.
How does the app work?
‘There were a few things I knew the app absolutely needed to make it a success: the ability to get a service from the practice that was not just information was important – the ability to make an appointment, for example - and giving patients the widest possible range of options,’ Mr Forbes explains.
Because of strict NHS guidelines on software that interacts with clinical systems, patients cannot book appointments directly through the app. ‘We ask them to select the date, morning or afternoon, then we send back times we can offer.
'As soon as we see a request, we check and process it - we have a content management system that lets us see it,’ he says.
The app also allows patients to make repeat prescription requests and even send text messages to GPs and nurses at the practice.
‘You can text securely to a doctor or nurse for advice, have a conversation, download information, or record your own health. Promoting self care is a massive part of it.
‘If you had an appointment last week and forget what the doctor said, you can text and ask instead of making a new appointment.’
Could other practices develop apps?
The way app was created allows the practice to independently add new pages, video and other content. ‘The company we worked with made it really easy to do. We can add something and then anyone with the app gets the update.
'Data is also fed back to the practice on who is downloading the app,' Mr Forbes says.
His background made developing the app easier, but he believes even without that advantage other practices could develop their own apps. ‘I think for other practices it will get infinitely easier, and they can now reference something already in existence.
'Hopefully people can take it on and come up with improvements - it’s our first attempt.’
What other advantages are there?
Convenience for patients is an obvious benefit, but Robin Lane Medical Centre staff also believe it could help them make contact with a wider range of patients.
‘If for example you have a 15-year-old girl, who has just become sexually active and thinks she has an STI, she may not want to go on the internet at home or tell anyone,’ Mr Forbes says. ‘But she can ask questions via text to a nurse at the practice on her smartphone, allowing access to healthcare in way that could be a big advantage.’
The practice worked with the App Institute and Mr Forbes says that the firm is delighted to have helped an innovative GP practice wanting to use the latest technology to boost access to NHS services.
- Visit the Robin Lane Medical Centre website.