How to help patients to access and use online services in primary health care

Elder couple work together at computer, photo by Proxima Studio/Adobe Stock

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What is the issue?

Recent years have seen a push towards the adoption of online services in primary health care, ranging from booking appointments and ordering repeat prescriptions, through to the use of email and video consultations with patients. These online services have the potential benefit of reducing administrative burden and improving communication and access to healthcare. However, they could also cause greater inequality for those patients who may be harder to reach digitally, such as elderly individuals and those in rural areas or from lower socioeconomic groups.

To avoid such issues, it is important to understand how primary care practices help patients access and use online services, including how barriers to digital uptake might be overcome. RAND Europe, alongside researchers at Exeter University and Warwick University, has been funded by the National Institute for Health Research to explore what approaches to facilitating patient uptake of online services are being used by primary care practices in England. The study will look at the approaches to facilitation, the impact they are having on uptake of online services, and how such uptake may be impacting patient health and access to healthcare by different groups of the population.

How are we helping?

Researchers will explore the potential benefits and challenges associated with different models of digital facilitation, and design a framework for future evaluations of the effectiveness of such interventions. The study will include a scoping review, a survey of 500 primary care practices in England, a survey of patients from practices participating in the survey and qualitative research, involving patients and the public throughout.

The study is anticipated to be used to inform NHS patients and carers, policymakers and front-line staff about how primary care practices could help their patients to use online resources, particularly those patients who might otherwise be disadvantaged by the increasing use of digital technology in primary care.