GPSoC-R: the doctor might email you now

The NHS National Programme for IT was by no means a complete failure. Parts of it, such as NHSmail, did so well that they are currently being renewed with new contracts, bells and whistles. The same is true of one of the less-known contracts, GP Systems of Choice (GPSoC), which expires this year – and its new version GPSoC-R (which stands for replacement) looks likely to support big changes in the way that patients and GPs communicate.

The last government originally wanted all GPs to move to centrally-chosen software to manage their patient records. GPs refused, and the government wisely backed down. Instead, it did a set of deals with the main providers of GP software – the original GPSoC project – under which it pays them centrally and gets them to adjust their systems to handle national initiatives such GP2GP, which lets participating surgeries transfer notes electronically when a patient moves (as opposed to one surgery printing them off one computer system and the new one typing them in again – this is what happens otherwise).

GPSoC-R will continue with this, but it is also set to support improved communications between GPs and patients. In December, a meeting held by IT trade group Intellect for potential suppliers heard that the new deal will help GPs use email and text messaging to communicate with patients, and allow patients to book appointments online, request repeat prescriptions and view their own records. It also hopes to do much to join up communications electronically within the NHS, and to make it easier for GPs to introduce new functions to their core software – the latter was compared at the Intellect event to plug-ins for browsers.

But the thing patients will notice as a result of GPSoC-R – which will go out to tender in a few weeks, with new deals in place by the end of 2013 – will be that many more GPs will adopt email, SMS and web in communicating with those patients who want to use them. (There’s a clear realisation that some patients will want to stick to paper.) GPs were the first healthcare professionals to computerise, but at present only a few practices allow patients access to a wide range of electronic services – although many now manage one or two, such as ordering repeat prescriptions online.

The security needs to be right, but helping GPs to make full use of digital communications should make them more efficient while providing a better service for patients. It’s familiar territory for most other professional service: it’s about time patients are able to use email, SMS and web to talk to GPs as well.