Review Slams Costly And Confusing NHS Websites

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An internal review of thousands of NHS websites has found that they are costing £86 million per year, and are not meeting the public’s needs

An internal audit has discovered that the NHS is spending approximately £86 million on thousands of websites, which are badly designed, difficult to find and irrelevant for patients.

The shocking revelation came in a digital communications report that was circulated in June, which was initially leaked to Health Services Journal. It said the estimated £86 million per year total cost does not include start-up costs, so the actual total could be much higher.

The review found that, in total, the NHS has more than 4,121 websites, and that 1,000 websites are no longer accessible. And to make matters worse, it said that at least a third of the 2,873 remaining websites were either difficult to navigate or populated with poor content. Only half the websites provided email addresses.

Weak GP websites

According to the Guardian, the worst culprits were GPs’ websites, which were singled out as offering a poor service to patients. Almost 60 percent of the 671 working websites set up by family doctors had problems. “GP surgeries were the weakest of all the website types in the sparse offering of features and functionality,” said the researchers.

The research also warned that poor websites mean “the confidence of the public in the NHS brand may be diminished”, according to the Guardian. “Patients wanted to see ‘one NHS’ online rather than a proliferation of websites.”

The newspaper also said that Google lists 56 million pages with the nhs.uk domain. “The vast majority are likely to be hidden to the public and the research concludes that their purpose is unclear,” said the newspaper.

Confused Strategy

The report also criticised the fact that two of the NHS’s most recognised websites, namely NHS Choices and NHS Direct, are often competing for the same attention. NHS Choices is targeted at promoting healthy lifestyles and local services, whereas NHS Direct is supposed to offer online diagnostic tools.

But the review feels that the two websites have become confused and are working at cross purposes. “NHS Choices and NHS Direct are both established as national sites with similarities of positioning, brand and audience. This confuses users about the ‘definitive’ access point for NHS information and the roles of each site.”

“We know that information is the key to patient choice and control, as well as better outcomes for patients,” said a Department of Health spokesperson in response. “As the recent white paper said, the government intends to bring about an NHS information revolution to give people access to comprehensive, trustworthy and easy to understand information from a range of sources on conditions, treatments, lifestyle choices and how to look after their own and their family’s health.”

“The Department will set out how it intends to achieve this with the launch of an information strategy in the autumn,” the spokesperson added.

Cost Cutting

The review will no doubt put further pressure on the NHS to trim its costs. The new coalition government has already said it would scrap a £80 million software licensing deal with Microsoft for the NHS Connecting for Health (CfH) programme, as part of cost cutting measures.

In addition, the new government has also pledged to axe three quarters of its websites as part of a cost cutting review by the Cabinet Office. Back in January the then-Labour government announced it would close more than half of its websites. The Labour Government admitted at the time that it had closed 907 of its 1,700 websites, following the recommendations of the Varney report back in 2006.

However, the new government has found that, despite this previous culling of websites, there were still 820 websites as of March 2010, and it has identified three quarters of them that could be in line for the chop.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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