Female nurse typing on digital tablet in hospital or surgery. She is wearing a dark blue nurse’s top and has her stethoscope around her neck. She is looking at her patients records on her digital tablet.

Empowering patients with Scotland’s NHS 24 Online app

Launched in late 2022, the NHS 24 Online app has been transforming how people access healthcare information and services. With more than 20,000 downloads so far, the mobile app offers an alternative solution for people to find out about symptoms and understand the next steps for treatment.  

The app will be particularly impactful for patients in the Orkney and Shetland islands. Both island groups of Orkney and Shetland are located off the Scottish mainland, across the North Sea, Orkney 10 miles away, and Shetlands the northernmost part of the UK at over 100 miles out.  

“You can imagine people on the islands live quite remotely from different health services,” says Anthony McDavitt, Director of Pharmacy for NHS Shetland and Orkney. In his role, McDavitt is responsible for all pharmacy sectors — community, hospital and primary care — across the islands.  

“There are areas where people may have to travel great distances to get the clinical appointments they need, or to understand what their next steps are,” explains McDavitt. “With this app we can link people up with the different services to determine where to go first. It’s a great tool to help connect the dots for people seeking care.”  

Alleviating pressure on the NHS in a user-friendly way 

The app is the latest online offering from NHS 24, which is Scotland’s provider of digital- and telephone-based health and care services, such as the 111-service and NHS inform. Given core callers to 111 are in the 18 to 34 age group and are more likely to want to access services via a smart device, NHS 24 identified the need for a more innovative and streamlined approach to healthcare service delivery. NHS 24 worked with Cluster Reply, a Microsoft Partner specialising in Azure, who developed the app.  

“The NHS 24 Online app is an additional delivery channel for our services, via a multi-experience approach,” says Ann Marie Gallacher, NHS 24’s Chief Information Officer.  

“The app is hosted on Azure, and offers patients another choice in how they find out about their symptoms and understand what to do next. There is also a virtual chatbot function to answer questions and get advice for a range of conditions, such as eye problems, flu-like illness, lower back pain, urinary tract infections (UTIs) or issues such as running out of medicine.” 

An example of how the NHS 24 online app looks when in use. It shows 3 screenshots, the first shows a chatbot, the second shows a list of GP practices, and the last shows the chatbot in action

 The app can also help people find their nearest health and care services, including pharmacies, GP surgeries, dental practices, optometrists, minor injury units or sexual health clinics. By using postcodes or location data it can detail how far away each service is, if it’s open or closed and the contact details for that service.  

“People across the islands are technology literate, so they find the app to be accessible,” says McDavitt. “The app isn’t replacing what’s already there — rather, it’s adding options. Instead of waiting in a virtual queue on the phone, or trying to do their own search for information, the app can serve them in a user-friendly, seamless way.” 

Empowering patients with the ability to self-manage  

For McDavitt, one of the biggest successes of the app is how it empowers patients. “Previously, people would have had a telephone call with their GP, but the app enables individuals to self-help,” he says. “It provides a series of questions and a systematic approach, meaning people in remote and rural locations are able to self-manage their problems more quickly, or make necessary plans to access a resource that can’t be available on the phone.”  

This new approach will support alleviating pressure to the NHS. “I think it’s a great step forward,” says McDavitt. “Until the app, we hadn’t been able to achieve effective and comprehensive approaches to get patients to the right people, particularly in smaller systems like on Shetland. NHS 24 Online really helps us add capacity to a smaller care model by giving people help and information when they need it.” 

“There’s still lots to do but what we’re starting to realise the potential that technology can bring. I’m looking forward to how algorithms can support freeing clinicians up to make sure we spend the right time with the right person.” 

The importance of timing and technology 

The app launched just as the winter months kicked in, which is always an especially strained time for the NHS. Ann Marie Gallacher reflects, “I’m proud of everyone who worked so hard to deliver this in time for winter pressures. By using a cloud-first approach, we’ve been able to create a user-friendly, seamless application thanks to the tools and technologies available via the Microsoft Azure platform.” 

Andy James, Associate Partner of Cluster Reply said of the launch, “We’re delighted to have worked with NHS 24 to have delivered this innovative app. We’re excited about the potential this offers citizens of Scotland to access key healthcare services digitally.”