Healthcare video consulting platform in line for £25m government funding boost

A healthcare video consulting platform is in line to receive a £25m funding boost as part of a new draft infrastructure investment plan unveiled by Ministers.

NHS NearMe, which saw a fifty-fold increase in usage across Scotland during lockdown, will be scaled up nationally to meet growing demand as more GPs and healthcare providers move consultations online in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The investment will be used for the ‘system development’ required in response to the surge of usage for the service, which is based on Australian technology platform Attend Anywhere, launched in that country in 1998.

Details of the financial pledge were revealed in the Scottish Government’s draft infrastructure investment plan, published last week, and represents a spending commitment in excess of a hundred times the service received for largely rural deployment in 2019. Last year, as GP practices across Scotland received £9m to upgrade their premises and IT systems, of which £200,000 was earmarked for supporting the deployment of Attend Anywhere to remote and rural GP practices.

The new investment reflects the huge growth in use of the web-based service, which has seen pre-pandemic usage of around 300 consultations per week soar to over 17,000 on a weekly basis. The Skype-like service has been used remotely by a range of clinicians, including GPs, physiotherapists, nurses, psychologists, dieticians, occupational health and community care workers. It is also being expanded into acute medicine with a growth in use by hospital- based clinicians for out-patient appointments.

The rollout has been further supported by a digital programme being carried out by NHS 24 – the inbound response handling service for the NHS in Scotland – to equip GP practices around the country with the design of local practice websites. Dr Laura Ryan, Medical Director of NHS 24, told the health and sport committee at the Scottish Parliament this week how the gp.scot resource has now reached 60 practices in Scotland.

She said: “The initial plan was to implement the initiative in 30 practices but during Covid we have been able to scale that up to 60 practices. That specifically allows for alignment and visibility so that the end user—the patient, or anyone who is using the practice on the patient’s behalf—can immediately access all the NHS Inform resources.

“The platform also enables the NHS Near Me service, which offers the ability to consult remotely with patients. As we know, when that approach is chosen by patients, it is a very effective means of interacting clinically with them.”

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman added: “The pandemic has demonstrated the positive changes that we can make to how and where we deliver healthcare, which we must lock in. By accelerating the transition to a new model of community NHS care, and supporting digitisation of services through facilities such as NHS Near Me, we can ensure that people receive the right care, in the right place and at the right time.”

Near Me is a video consulting service that enables some people to have health and social care appointments from home or ideally, wherever is convenient and practical. This is a free and confidential web-based platform. To have a video consultation a device for making video calls like a smartphone and an internet connection is required, as well as space to attend an appointment.

The aim is for all health and care consultations to be provided by Near Me whenever it is appropriate, similarly to the approach adopted by the UK Government insofar as its remit extends to patients in England.

Attend Anywhere was initiated south of the border in response to COVID-19, although NHS Trusts in England are not mandated to use it if they are already using other technology systems. A ‘national video outpatient consultation contract’, in response to the COVID 19 pandemic, was procured under G-Cloud 11 and was awarded to Attend Anywhere for up to £4.85m, running from March this year until March 2021. Two trials of the service were commenced in 2019, for much lesser amounts.

The system dates back three years in Scotland, however. Following an initial pilot phase in 2017, and early scale up programmes in the North of Scotland, the national rollout programme was established in 2018. A key driver, particularly in rural areas has been to reduce inequalities in accessing services, in part, due to lengthy travel times.

As part of the response to COVID-19 in March 2020, Near Me – a rebranding of Attend Anywhere to suit domestic priorities – is now being used in every NHS Board area in Scotland, and is being expanded to other services and settings.

Recognising the transformational change, Vision for Near Me was produced in May 2020, and a recent survey of 5,000 users showed overwhelming support for the service.