£500m savings could be released by moving hospital appointments online

One in three routine outpatient hospital attendances could be moved online, saving nearly half a billion pounds per year in lost economic activity and wasted NHS time.

Analysis by digital healthcare platform provider Visiba Care reveals that 25.8 million NHS outpatient consultations in England annually could be delivered using digital technology, allowing patients to get help and advice from their consultant without the need for a hospital visit.

The findings also reveal that more than half of all hospital outpatient attendances (54%) last year were made by people aged 16-64 and show that the wider use of digital consultations would mean nearly one million days off work for NHS consultations could be avoided, pouring an estimated £231.3m back into the British economy.

There would be further savings to the NHS from moving consultations online totalling £265.7m, from a combination of more efficient use of clinicians’ time – digital consultations are typically quicker to complete than face-to-face ones – and fewer missed appointments known as DNAs (‘did not attend’). Scaled across England, digital consultations could save nearly five million hours of clinical time.

Taking avoidable lost economic output and NHS efficiency savings together, wider use of digital consultations would release a cautious estimate of £497m per year.

NHS figures show that hospital outpatient visits have spiralled over the past decade - nearly doubling from 54 to 94 million, at a cost of £8 billion a year.

In April, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens called on the NHS to ‘lock in’ beneficial changes implemented during the pandemic, including digital consultations. Its aim, set out in the NHS Long Term Plan, is to reduce face-to-face outpatient appointments by a third by 2023-24.

Last year, health secretary Matt Hancock said that the current model of outpatient services is “outdated, wasting too much time and causing too much inconvenience for patients.”

Commenting on the findings, Professor Sam Shah, director of the Faculty of Future Health and former director of digital transformation at NHSX, said: “These very important findings reflect the essential need to design accessible health services, using digital channels with modes of consultation that best meet citizen needs. Digital outpatient services could not only help improve economic productivity but will also support reduced road traffic. It’s essential that digital outpatient services are now part of digital transformation in the NHS.”  

Tina Marshall, Visiba Care UK Country Manager added: “With both the economy and NHS looking to reset in the wake of the pandemic, harnessing the known gains of shifting to digital appointments could play a huge role in relieving pressures on the NHS and wider workforce.”