The Importance of a Digital NHS

CaptureThe most recent festive period saw a record number of calls to Scotland’s NHS out of hours 111 service, extremely busy accident and emergency departments, and huge increases in ambulance call outs and overall demand for health and care services. I highlight my admiration and gratitude to our frontline staff who not only dealt with this massive surge in demand, but who did so at the expense of spending time with their friends and family at a special time of year.

Now for a small bit of self-indulgence…

NHS inform, Scotland’s online health information resource also witnessed new highs. Over the month of December we had 700,000 visits, the majority searching for information related to flu, colds, chest and abdominal pain, as well as utilising its national service directory to determine Christmas and New Year opening times for pharmacies and other NHS services.


NHS inform is fast becoming a vital component of NHS Scotland, and it is essential in encouraging those with common health complaints and symptoms to utilise a digital first approach. We have managed to increase user numbers from 57K in December 16, to the 700K noted above, primarily by surfacing important seasonal content, making the site more findable and accessible, as well as promoting the transactional tools the site offers, such as the excellent Self Help Guide.

What therefore should we be looking at going forward? Well the answer is simple – we need to cater better for our audience as well as make the site as good as it can possibly be. To do some of this we turn to digital marketing techniques such as improved page titles, meta data descriptions and general Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) improvements. We need to also think of benefit driven titles that tells our users what they can expect from our site quickly. In addition we need to think like our users, and relate to their emotion content logic, not simply our standard NHS sequential logic of how we ‘think’ people use our websites.

Capture3Utilising social media as part of this digital marketing approach is also important. We can’t rely on always asking users to follow NHS inform or our corporate account NHS24. What young person realistically has either of those accounts among those they follow? What we do need to do is build up a professional following in order that brand recognition becomes our asset. The NHS in the UK is made up of lots of components and we can’t expect the public to understand every constituent. However we can promote the simple message that if you live or work in Scotland – NHS inform is your online health information resource. The very design of the site therefore needs to instantly say ‘this is for the people of Scotland’.

It is well documented on national and local media that the NHS in the UK has its struggles. Increasing life expectancy, record number of individuals living with long term health conditions, prescribing budgets at breaking point all contribute. This is the reality and it seems unlikely the situation will dramatically change in the immediate future. However, we can do better; we can redirect those who do not require same day treatment or consultation to appropriate resources. Digital services offers this in a cost effective and convenient way. Those experiencing many common health complaints need nothing more than information, perhaps coupled with direction to their closest pharmacy. Health information queries make up a quarter of the calls to the 111 out of hours service (it is not an NHS hotline as reported in some media outlets over the festive period, however it was nice of them to show how well the staff were doing in challenging times!).

Some of you may be asking about the use of Apps and why have I not talked about them. Well, for one simple reason – like social media they can be tricky to market. An app is for daily if not weekly use. An NHS app which you may only use a few times a year is unlikely to last on prime phone real estate and again like social media, how many people under the age of 30 would have such an App on their phone? Add to this the fact that the private sector can often develop better solutions with significant marketing backing. We therefore need to think carefully about Apps. I am not saying don’t do it, just that it needs a cautious approach. Like all parts of the NHS, budgets are tight, we need to put our digital investment where it will have the most impact. Apps may be it, or they may not.

I leave you with this thought, if close to 40,000 users per day (as seen from festive daily use of NHS inform) are able to get informative help and support from our website, how much can this reduce traffic to other essential NHS services, and does it better inform people what service they should be accessing in the first place? The answer at the moment is – we don’t know. But we need to find out as I believe this is the start of a great digital journey for the NHS in Scotland.

Kevin Hutchison

Digital Development and Content Manager NHS 24

Thanks to Kevin for letting us report this blog from December 2017. The original posting can be found here.


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