Highly usable websites, inclusive and accessible content – all coming to a GP website near you

Well, this is very welcome…  

Future NHS page with the ‘creating a highly usable and accessible GP Website for patients’ guide, and ‘Patient-user research to support’

In the last few weeks there are some super updates to the guidance from NHS Digital and NHS England that will help GP practices to create inclusive content and usable websites. It should also make lives easier for people who need to use the ‘Digital front door’, aka GP practice websites. 

I’m talking about the updates to the NHS Digital service manual,  Content style guide and the ‘Creating a highly usable and accessible GP Website’ from NHS England’s user research team, Dominic Vallely and Emmy Graham. We’ll be exploring the content style guide and the ways in which practices communicate with patients in a joint event with Nexer Digital on the 12th October 22 (have a peek on Twitter at #LettersHack).

If you’ve followed my other GP website blogs ….

You’ll realise that I have a bit of thing for GP websites.  In my day job, I sit at the intersection between policy makers, NHS commissioners, specialists in inclusive and accessible research and service design, product suppliers and the people in practices who try and make sense of it all, to provide services to us as patients in the NHS.  It’s a nice place to sit.  I don’t need to be a specialist, I don’t need to have the technical know-how, and although I do know a fair bit about General Practice, service improvement and delivery, we all have experiences as patients that we can lean on and learn from. This guidance brings much of that knowledge into one place. 

This is why the guides are so helpful….   

GP Practices have a myriad of contract requirements to meet, in fact there are 10 pages of items listed in the ‘highly usable website guide’.  Many of them are iterations of earlier contract requirements, it’s no wonder practice teams are confused – I’m confused by much of it too.  The GP website supplier market is large, as is the online consultation market and each supplier clearly wants to do the best for their clients – the practices.  But occasionally and possibly due to the market competition, these suppliers sometimes focus a bit too much on their own branding and product and not quite enough on the usability of their product, either from a General Practice team perspective or the intended end user, i.e. the patient.  They may forget that their product needs to be connected to another NHS service and so needs to conform to the standards and style of the NHS brand, which is trusted and researched to reach as many people as possible.  Often, the user is confused when they access information online and get diverted off to a supplier’s platform, or suddenly the page no longer looks like their GP practice or even an NHS service. 

Home page from NHS Digital service manual showing the Standard for creating health content

Colours matter, language and content matters, the user’s journey matters, the technical layout matters.  For the practice teams who have a million other things to do, simple ‘how to’ instructions and examples help enormously and these guides offer sample layouts with ‘things to include’ and just as importantly, things ‘not to include and say’. 

Hilary Stephenson, Managing Director at Nexer Digital says,

It’s great to see the convergence of user centred design standards and technical platforms across the NHS and their vendor network. Sadly, in our work we have seen real issues with the core usability and accessibility of websites, consultation platforms and apps used for digital engagement. This feels like such a missed opportunity at a time where digital inclusion is vital for patients, their families and those delivering services under immense pressure. Anything that provides practical guidance, which is evidenced by user research and makes things more inclusive, from content design through to platform configuration, will improve the experience for patients, clinicians and administrative teams.’

Hilary Stephenson, Managing Director at Nexer Digital

Now the work starts….

There are over 6500 GP practices in England, just over 900 in Scotland, almost 400 in Wales and over 300 in Northern Ireland, each serving their average registered population of 9000 people.  That’s a lot of people to reach to reduce the variation of experience for users and for practice teams who provide information.  We have incorporated this guidance along with simple advice, hints and tips into an easy-to-use system called the Digital journey planner (DJP).  The first module; Patient Communications deals with Websites, Social Media and Messaging, The second module; GP Online Services covers everything that practice teams need to know to provide a good online service and make that easy for patients to use. If you are getting ready for patients having full online access to their medical records later this year, it’s a must. Our next module, due for release at end of Sept will be Digital Inclusion.

Map showing location of practices in England using the Digital Journey Planner. Blue dots have Foundation access, green dots are practices with Enhanced support from Redmoor Health to embed digital service delivery. Aug 2022.

So far 10% of practices are using this system in England currently and we aim for 25% before the end of the year.  At Redmoor Health we work with practice teams to help improve digital knowledge, skills, confidence and competence and offer support in terms of training, coaching, advice and share best practice resources that save practices time when searching for help.  These guides are essential learning tools to embed in the DJP, so they are easy to find and stand alongside practical hints and tips when to use.  Some areas have already commissioned Redmoor Health to carry out reviews across all their practice websites, just to get a feel for the scale of the problem and ideas how to help. Others have offered incentive schemes for practices to have the time and space to make the changes, so we anticipate this as a big opportunity to improve, standardise and simplify access to information.   

The suppliers…. 

Good suppliers have been using these standards for some time and have already created NHS style guided website templates, that meet the accessibility and usability needs of users and practice teams.  Others recognise that they need to encourage practices to move away from old legacy systems, personalised styles and ‘whizzy websites’ to be more consistent, and to simplify the user journey.  I’m quite sure many more will now take on these recommendations following the detailed patient user research that informed the guide. I spoke to a few to get their views of the research and guidance.

Iatro Practice 365 have already produced a simple version and template for practice teams to know what to add to their website. Thomas Porteus said,

‘We’ve been behind the NHS Service Design Toolkit since we started, it’s been a pleasure to work with NHS teams openly and to be able to contribute our own code back to the project for the good of all NHS organisations. The guidance is a really great point of reference for practices wondering where to start, and what to avoid’

Thomas Porteus, CEO and Founder of Iatro

Tim Green, co-founder of GPsurgery.net, commented:

As advocates for patient-friendly, accessible websites since we began working with GP surgeries in 2004, we warmly welcome this new evidence-based guidance from the NHS Digital First Primary Care team. Clearly focused on simplifying the patient journey, the guidance offers practical advice and tips for practices and commissioners aiming to improve patient experience, reduce digital inequalities and remove barriers to access for patients with disabilities.“

Tim Green, co-founder of GPsurgery.net

Dillon Sykes, NHS Partnerships Manager and Joe McGrath, Product Manager for Livi have been developing the full patient journey via their website platform to connect to the NHSApp.

‘At Livi we welcome this new guidance from NHS England. Accessibility is not about sticking assistive technology onto the website. It is about building the website from the ground up to work with third-party assistive technology (e.g. screen readers). It is also about ensuring the website content is written in a way that is clear and understandable by the majority of users.  By using the NHS Digital Service design system, Livi websites are NHS branded, optimising functionality and providing confidence for patients to engage with online GP services (as well as other locally commissioned services and third-party tools). We believe practices should have generic accessible content and definitions of local service providers to help patients manage their own care. This approach has allowed us to build a practice website platform that gives practices back more time to spend on patient care by:

  • nudging more patients to digital services and appropriate alternative NHS services,
  • reducing the time needed to manage and maintain the website
Dillon Sykes, NHS Partnerships Manager

To the commissioners – let’s do this together….

Most useful in the website guide is valuable information for NHS commissioning teams to help procure GP websites ‘at scale’ and to know what to ask of suppliers in terms of user testing.  Perhaps now is the time to rethink the stance that ‘it’s a GMS requirement to have an online presence’. This must be the way forward to support local population communications and connecting the services at a local level for patients. It will support primary care network development and reduce the burden on individual practices to know and learn about website technicalities, so they can just focus on the message and how it is presented or accessed.    As more services are delivered together, why would we expect each separate practice to upload its own content and service description?  Surely this is done once by the local service provider?  Let’s take a current example.  Practices will all be delivering Flu and Covid boosters soon.  They need one single page for who’s eligible, then the ability to edit and add what’s happening locally, so that people know how to book and where to go.    Currently each website supplier may duplicate this, and some are good enough to offer a ‘Flu’ content page.  NHS England have issued the criteria in a Specification.  Public Health (UK Health Security Agency) have some promotional material, and poor practice managers will be trying to make sense of it all to tell their patients what is happening, whilst awaiting the final dates from vaccine suppliers and working out which members of the team can deliver.  One forward thinking area has thankfully collated all of this information together for its member practices and wait for it…… shared it as a google drive document to 200+ practices via email!!! That’s my Friday job folks – to upload and create this years Flu page.

google drive document containing all of the information required for 2022/23 Flu campaign

Hopefully, you can see where I’m going with this. Do we really need 6500 individual digital front doors?   I think not, but always open to be persuaded if you think the status quo is better.

GP websites – just what is their primary purpose?

A colleague recently shared a research project they are working on; ‘What does a good Primary Care Digital offer look like?’ We chatted a bit about GP websites and ways that we try to communicate with patients and I delivered one of my usual unstructured ramblings, so thought I’d share some of this with you and ask for views please.

Introduction to the project

When I heard about this research, my first response was to ask if I could join the project too.   Primarily I wanted to be sure that someone who worked in general practice could offer an operational perspective. I also wanted to avoid ‘a solution’ that would make more work for already very stretched, practice staff. Having been a PM for 8 years and been working with Patient Groups for more than 15 years, I have an interest in using digital solutions to communicate widely and have a few connections in the world of digital and user experience design; I thought it would be a nice opportunity to work together on this.  Like many practices, I knew that our practice website was due a refresh; we’d signed up with our Website provider in 2012 and although fiddled with it a bit, not really changed its look since.  There have been software updates, but as we had been on the cusp of joining a new organisation for some time, I kept thinking we would wait then create a combined practice site with a more corporate look and better functionality. So, here’s the first question, as a patient or carer, how do you receive information from your GP surgery? Have a look at your GP’s practice website and see when it was last updated and ask yourself, does it contain the information I need?  What other stuff is on there that you didn’t know? If you have a health related question, where do you search for information? Let me know and we can try and ensure we signpost to this.

Why are websites never up to date?

The word Everything on a To-Do list on a dry erase board to remind you of your tasks, priorities, goals and objectives

Reasons for not updating websites frequently are many, but usually due to time pressures. I also had a fear that if we changed the layout, we’d be inundated with concerns from patients asking where things had moved to – a bit like moving items in the aisles in the supermarket.  Although we add information fairly regularly, the process is clunky; the site’s formatting and design aren’t that user friendly and from a practice perspective, it’s just another job to do.

Value for money or too expensive?

Funding a new website is also a thorny issue. Bigger (or better funded) practices may invest in a bespoke product, smaller practices may see this as an added luxury. A good website should deliver value for money, especially if provides patients with information about the right service for their needs or links to local, relevant advice on ill health and disease prevention and selfcare. A priority for the health service right now is the need for people to use services responsibly. The NHS is so complex, how do people know where to go; use 111, local walk-in centre, general practice, specialist community service, A&E – the list goes on. General Practice is viewed as the front door to the NHS so the assumption is that its their job to signpost patients. But is it really the GPs job to describe all of the various options? Good website content and design should help with quick access to information and good signposting to services without having to wait in a telephone queue. Yet many practices buy the basic off the shelf, template based site for less than £500 per year and give little direction in terms of where to go in the NHS. Perhaps all of those other services should provide information about when to visit the GP?

From a site ‘visit’ perspective, we can no longer access visitor and page view statistics, so we don’t really know how many people visit or if the information is of value.  The world of website analytics is unknown to many practice managers. 

So, where do Practices look for a website provider….

There are a number of proprietary providers that most practices use because they are recommended on Forums (Practice Index, Practice Manager facebook forums etc) or linked to other existing service provision (MysurgeryWebsite, Wiggly Amps, Egton). The question ‘who do you use as your website provider’ has been posted numerous times in the last 12m.

These sites are usually hosted and come with an element of local tailoring with set templates for you to choose from.  Many practices just go with the basic product as delivered from the supplier on day one, others clearly spend time thinking about the look and content. Historically, they tended to be desktop based versions, but increasingly they are adapting to be suitable for use with mobile options as more patients use a range of devices to access healthcare information. I’m told by our provider, that we have a legacy system and waiting to see the demo of the new Digital alternative.

A GP website is a repository of information with links to other useful sites, but often they contain lots of repetition and page changes, with the user losing their way from an initial enquiry. Patients can spends time surfing around for key information, yet still many practices don’t even have the basics of an email address or a number to text for general contact enquiries.

Functionality –   Front facing and back office?

There are website providers that not only host information but also gather patient information too, through use of online forms.  They attempt to ‘stream’ patients enquiries through to specific teams i.e. admin, medication enquires or clinical care (e.g. asthma questions).  They are sometimes partnered with other recognised ‘Online consultation’ forms.  These sites are helping practices to carry out vital data capture and also provide a form of triage, but how are practices assured of the risk i.e. data protection, clinical good practice etc.  Some practices are cautious of opening up other channels to receive additional work streams, especially as not all are integrated with the practice Clinical Health Record system, so clinical coding is missing. Maybe these functions should be viewed not as ‘additional’ but alternative ways of dealing with enquiries; better than a wasted GP appointment for a simple non-clinical enquiry, no?

Many website providers also offer a ‘back office’ or intranet function for practices to create and store information such as contact lists, room schedules, staff rotas, significant events, fridge temperatures, procedures and policies etc. These are used by the whole team and contribute to appraisal preparation and evidence of compliance for regulators. Increasingly these functions are being replaced by better compliance and collaboration tools such as GPTeamnet, Fourteen Fish etc

Do practices have the right design and communication skills?

I don’t mind admitting, I’ve got ‘font and layout’ issues and the limited text style irritates me, so I don’t enjoy this job when there are so many other things to do, but I never seemed to make the time to learn how to use it properly and I know that many Practice managers are the same.  I also don’t have the design skills to make the layout effective or to incorporate graphics or images that replace the written word.

Although template websites have a range of options to choose from, the design and formatting functionality can be somewhat limited and clunky.  It’s fairly easy to spot a bespoke high quality design from an ‘off the shelf’ template.  Most practices wouldn’t know where to start in terms of placing the most frequently used pages/items at the front, or create eye-catching designs that engage users or communicate effectively.

Web designer

NHS Digital have kindly provided guidance for us to follow – I shared it recently with other Practices and doubt anyone has actually read it or made changes as a result – I know I haven’t had time.

This is part of NHS Digital, creating standards intended to ensure accessibility and inclusion and good user experience.  Many websites still don’t address the increasing need for good accessible design and practices buy with the hope that their site meets the legal requirements for accessibility and inclusion. This guide is great for designers, but well above the skill and knowledge level in most practices and I wouldn’t know where to start checking our current provider against these standards. What would be helpful is that anyone who provides a website service can demonstrate they meet this standard, so that practices can be assured before they purchase.

NHS Generic information repeated?

The new GMS GP contract requires practices to have an up to date and informative online presence by 2020 (page 35). If we are to adopt a ‘Digital first’ approach, for those users who choose this, then a website’s original function is being overtaken by many other products. There are apps here, there and everywhere and more practices are using social media to share information quickly and widely, as well as traditional newsletters and posters in the surgeries.  There are many more online services to offer or ways for patients to access these services via alternatives to web browsers.

But don’t forget that NHS.UK (not called NHS Choices any more) has already created a unique site for every practice and some of the National dataset for performance links to this site i.e. star ratings and comments about service provision.   Having a practice website has been a minimum General Medical Services contract requirement for some time, but I doubt many practices update their NHS.uk one as well as their own site.  Most will just link to their own website. So each practice probably has links to GP survey comments, star ratings, who’s who, when we are open etc held in multiple places and this is another reason for out of date information. The connection to NHS.uk is provided from the clinical system provider (i.e. what online services are connected) and feeds into national contract management tools such as the Primary Care Web tool.  This is also the place where CQC look for feedback and comments.

Primary care working as networks

As more practices federate and work as networks to deliver shared services, access and common information should be provided via one page and not duplicated on separate sites.  Although some practices want to retain their own ‘front door’ to maintain familiarity for patients, most would happily hand over the ‘back office’ role of updating websites and linking to other NHS services and content. Will this be high on the priority list of any newly formed network?

Social Media, Reviews and Comments

Now things start to get interesting as people ‘check in’ and review their experience using tools like Facebook, Google review and I Want Great Care .  These platforms encourage patients to ‘like’ or ‘comment’ following attendance – practices can choose to ‘own’ these sites and respond, or ignore but are unable to remove comments so they may sit there, open for others to view unanswered.  Some practices hate this and are really fearful of data breaches as well as opening up other channels of communication. They may have a negative experience of social media and don’t want additional work of training staff to work safely and professionally in an area that crosses over with leisure and out of work activity.

However, if used wisely, social media offers highly effective alternative methods of communication for mobile users.  This recent post by one practice reached over 1m people to advise them about cervical screening services. This encourages interaction rather than one way push of information and has the ability to reach quickly and widely with little effort. 

More and more practices use social media and message solutions to communicate with individuals, groups and whole sections of the practice population as well as providing opportunity for ‘communities of interest’ and large scale communications at federated levels of General Practice. This has to be part of any new communication system.

Access to online services

As more services are delivered online, then application developers are providing better alternatives to the GP practice website for transactional services like booking, cancelling appointments, ordering medicines etc. There is a market approach to the development of these online services and practices are struggling to keep up and train teams to offer knowledge and advice on the options to their patients.   Each app seems to deliver different functions which means that app of choice will depend very much on the need of the individual patient.
Depending on the provider, some websites link to a practices clinical system for online services but can only offer one online service and not multiple options. Although patients can choose from a number of different platforms to access online services currently, website providers haven’t enabled this choice. This limits practices and patients if people want to offer and use a variety of online services. The only way to do this is to signpost using weblinks rather than widgets to apps to advertise the options to patients.  All four current  providers; Evergreen Life, Patient Access, Dimec and Iplato all have apps to access booking, cancellation, messaging, medication ordering, medical records viewers etc but not all have browsers. Conversely, some of the online consultation systems only use browsers. The NHS app is due to roll out imminently, but as yet, we don’t know how this links to a practice website or browser option.


As you can see, its detailed and complex and really does need a review.
The work that UCLAN are doing with the NHS Primary Care Digital Transformation team will help inform what a good Primary Care Digital offer looks like. We need this to help practices buy and recommend the best products with confidence. We also need to know what content is most useful so that we help guide patients to the right service for their needs, quickly and easily.  So I’m glad this project is started, but let’s think first, what’s the purpose of a website and who is this project aimed at?  Please do add your comments and we will see if this can be added to the research.