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Are virtual GP appointments here to stay?

As we all know, the experience of seeking medical advice from a GP changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when stringent infection control measures at doctors’ surgeries saw an almost overnight move away from face-to-face appointments.1

Until then, face-to-face was generally the main GP service – accounting for around 70% of all GP appointments, with telephone and online GP consultations making up the remaining 30%. However, during the pandemic, the situation reversed, with remote appointments making up 70% of the total. 

Today, as we emerge into a new normal, it seems remote appointments are here to stay, with health secretary, Savid Javid appearing to give the idea his backing.2 The evidence of an expanded role for remote appointments is already available, with telephone and online GP appointments currently making up half of the total – or around 10 million per month.3 

But what does a shift towards remote GP appointments mean for patients and GPs? 

Virtual GP services: What patients think 

Broadly speaking, patients are in favour of remote GP appointments4 perhaps because they help to solve some of the issues they faced in accessing GPs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

That is, pre-COVID, patients reported significant issues booking appointments, including: 

  • Being unable to contact their GP practice by phone 
  • Having difficulty fitting GP appointments into busy working lives
  • Wanting longer appointments – particularly for those with multiple health issues or travelling longer distances to see a GP.5

By contrast, many see remote appointments as more convenient, less stressful and an easier, simpler route to care – overall, satisfaction with remote GP appointments is high.4 However, that view is not universally held among patients. For instance, some patients are concerned that remote appointments can overlook individual support needs, heighten the risk of misdiagnosis, and put private health information at risk.4

Even so, the majority accept that a bigger role for remote GP appointments is inevitable – a change that most patients support.4 

What doctors think of remote and online GP services 

Meanwhile, GPs also broadly agree that remote appointments will play a more important role in future. Indeed, even in the early stages of the pandemic, when 95% of GPs were offering remote consultations, 88% said they wanted to see greater use of them continue in the future.6

More than year later, in October 2021, GPs also said they felt a return to general practice dominated by face-to-face consultations was simply not possible with resources stretched and patients demanding the quicker access to care made possible by remote consultations. Overall, 80% of GPs feel a return to pre-pandemic levels of face-to-face appointments was not necessary, while 57% believed the flexibility offered by remote or virtual GP consultations benefitted care.7

However, that does not mean GPs believe remote appointments should be the default in future. A report from the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), argues the right approach is to find a balance between face-to-face and remote consultations – with decisions about how care is delivered and accessed shared between GPs and patients based on their individual needs.1

In addition, some GPs do have reservations about remote and virtual consultations, citing a reduced ability to build relationships with patients, reduced efficiency in delivering the best health outcomes, and a feeling that an over-reliance on remote consultations would erode job satisfaction.1 

Tellingly, GPs are also concerned about the technology infrastructure needed to get the most out of remote appointments - 94% said they needed better broadband and better digital technology hardware, 92% said they needed better quality video consulting and 90% said they needed improved usability of remote appointment software. 

Telephone and online GP appointment risks 

On balance then, it does seem that remote and online GP appointments are here to stay and will play a bigger role in enabling access to GP care in future. 

For GP surgeries, however, this pivot to new ways of working can bring risk. A greater reliance on technology to deliver patient care could mean greater disruption following technological issues ‒ from damage and breakdown, to theft. Similarly, remote appointments could put confidential patient information at greater risk, whether from accidental leaks or cyber-criminals. 

Therefore, as GPs seek to strike the right balance between face-to-face and remote appointments, they must also strike the right balance between the benefits and risks of working remotely. GP practice insurance may have an important role to play here, both offering access to specialist risk management advice, and ensuring insurance protection keeps up with risks as these new ways of working take hold. 

Help is at hand 

For further information, read about the GP surgery insurance available from Marsh Commercial, or contact one of our experts for confidential advice and support.

Sources

  1. https://www.rcgp.org.uk/about-us/news/2021/may/gp-consultations-post-covid.aspx 
  2. https://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/news/breaking-news/remote-gp-consultations-here-to-stay-says-health-secretary/ 
  3. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10047725/Face-face-GP-appointments-fell-one-MILLION-month-despite-restrictions-scrapped.html 
  4. https://www.healthwatchbrightonandhove.co.uk/sites/healthwatchbrightonandhove.co.uk/files/People's views about remote consultations - compilation of evidence.pdf 
  5. https://www.healthwatch.co.uk/sites/healthwatch.co.uk/files/20210215 GP access during COVID19 report final_0.pdf 
  6. https://www.healthwatch.co.uk/blog/2020-07-27/doctor-will-zoom-you-now 
  7. https://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/news/politics/high-time-gps-offer-more-face-to-face-appointments-health-secretary-tells-mps/ 
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