Mystery shopping of GP websites and out-of-hours messages

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Summary of report content

Healthwatch East Sussex undertook a review of 52 GP websites and out of hours phone messages to see how informative and accessible they were for people.

Appointment options and triage mechanisms are not always explained on GP practice websites, with some providing limited detail on the options available and how to access them.

Navigation on GP websites varied but was made more complicated by long or ambiguously titled menus and lots of page layers, making content challenging to access. The best examples used a combination of a well organised home page combined with clear menus to guide swift access to content.

 Not all websites had search tools or functionality, making it harder to find the content sought quickly and efficiently, especially if the design was complicated. Similarly, where present, search tools were not always easy to find.

 Few practice websites referred to any delays or increased wait times for patients as a result of the pandemic or other factors, either when contacting the surgery (especially by phone) or receiving an appointment.

Staff information primarily focused on GPs, rather than other health professionals and practice staff. Contact details were not always publicly available for key individuals such as the practice manager.

Accessibility features and information such as translation services, Browsealoud and details on the physical accessibility of surgeries varied considerably, with these and accessibility statements not featuring on all websites.

Compliance information such as Care Quality Commission (CQC) ratings and reports were not present on all websites, with some examples that were present being out of-date. Similarly, the NHS Friends and Family Test was often visible but often not clearly explained.

Complaint processes, policies and timescales were not always easy to find, often with limited information on how to make a complaint about practices, rather than to a practice.

Feedback mechanisms from patients to surgeries and vice-versa were not always clear and information (e.g. patient surveys results) not regularly shown.

Information on Patient Participation Groups, Healthwatch, Advocacy Services, Carers or Veterans support was present on a majority of GP websites, but often wasn’t easy to find and varied in detail.

COVID-19 information, such as precautions, testing and vaccinations, wasn’t present on all websites and was not always current or up-to-date. Information was a mix of what the practice was/wasn’t doing in relation to COVID-19 vaccinations, how to access vaccinations and COVID-19 precautions when visiting practices face-to-face.

GP websites were not always compatible or user-friendly when accessed from tablets and mobile phones rather than computers.

Calls connected to the practice promptly (generally in 5 rings or fewer). These were generally answered by a human rather than an automated voice and did not provide a menu of options for callers to use.

The content of messages varied, generally including the practice name (but not in all cases), that it was closed, opening hours, and signposting to NHS 111 and 999. A few limited examples provided further information.

Only one message mentioned the triage/appointment process in place at the practice, and only one indicated the possibility of delays or barriers for patients when contacting the practice.

It was difficult to determine how up-to-date practice messages were, as no information on when they were posted is generally provided. Most of the content was regarded as current.

 Reviewers felt that messages could generally be improved by slowing down the speed of delivery, making the voice louder and ensuring that background noises were not present.

Overall, messages were found to be factually accurate and generally provide information in a clear and accessible way. However, the information offered was regarded as relatively basic in most cases and offered little that most people would not already be aware of.

The report contains 10 recommendations and a response from the CCG

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General details

Report title 
Mystery shopping of GP websites and out-of-hours messages
Local Healthwatch 
Healthwatch East Sussex
Date of publication 
Tuesday, 22 February, 2022
Date evidence capture began 
Friday, 1 October, 2021
Date evidence capture finished 
Tuesday, 30 November, 2021
Key themes 
Booking appointments
Cleanliness hygiene and infection control
Communication between staff and patients
Complaints procedure
Digitalisation of services
Health protection
Information providing
Public involvement
Service delivery organisation and staffing
Waiting times and lists for treatment

Methodology and approach

Was the work undertaken at the request of another organisation? 
Primary research method used 
If an Enter and View methodology was applied, was the visit announced or unannounced? 

Details of health and care services included in the report

Primary care services 
GP practice

Details of people who shared their views

Number of people who shared their views 
Not applicable
Age group 
Not known
Not known
Not known
Sexual orientation 
Not known
Does the information include public's views? 
Not applicable
Does the information include carer's, friend's or relative's views? 
Not applicable
Does the information include staff's views? 
Not applicable
What was the main sentiment of the people who shared their views? 

Outcomes and impact

Were recommendations made by local Healthwatch in the report? 
Does the information contain a response from a provider? 
Yes action has been taken or promised
Is there evidence of impact in the report? 
Is there evidence of impact external to the report? 
Not known
What type of impact was determined? 
Implied Impact

Network Impact
Relationships that exist locally, regionally, nationally have benefited from the work undertaken in the report
Implied Impact
Where it is implied that change may occur in the future as a result of Healthwatch work. This can be implied in a provider  response, press release or other source. Implied impact can become tangible impact once change has occurred.
Tangible Impact
There is evidence of change that can be directly attributed to Healthwatch work undertaken in the report.