The rise of the informed patient is saving the National Health Service millions of pounds a year, as patients are increasingly side stepping GPs in favour of using the Internet to make self-diagnoses.

The NHS website received over a 100 million visits in the last year, and according to research by Imperial College, a third of patients logging on to the site (appropriately) chose not to book a subsequent GP appointment, equating to potential savings of £44 million a year for the health service.

Furthermore, Imperial’s report notes that there are likely to be other “considerable savings associated with the opportunity users have to act on health advice offered by NHS Choices”, signalling its growing importance within the health service particularly during the current era of financial austerity.

According to Bristol GP Knut Schroeder, the Internet is “a great resource” for health-related information, but people must use sources they can trust, he stressed. “Many of my patients now use websites such as NHS Choices to look up health related information, such as symptoms or medical conditions [and] as a result, they are often better informed and are in a better position to use health services more appropriately,” he said.

However, Imperial’s research found that, while 70% of patients in GP waiting rooms use Internet sources of medical and health information, just 6% use the NHS website, so the majority of current demand is being met by “commercial operators with profit motivation and without the levels of validation and quality assurance employed by NHS Choices”. 

And while there has been a 10% rise in the number of visits to the NHS Choices in 2010 compared to the prior year, use of the site among GPs as the primary port of call for information to assist with patient consultations is still relatively low, and so marketing of the site to practice staff needs to be improved to maximise its potential, Imperial’s report stressed.

Which? gold

NHS Choices recently took gold in an investigation by consumer magazine Which? into online medical information sites, noting that the website “excelled for its breadth of information” and provided “medically robust information”, and it seems this must be conveyed to both patients and healthcare professionals so that the most can be made of the system.

The government has recently launched a consultation on the role of information and technology in helping people take better care and control of their health, and making the best choices for themselves and their families.