Posted on April 14, 2020 by staff

Could Covid-19 spell the end of traditional GP appointments?


It was easy to miss amid the daily deluge of coronavirus-related news over Easter but the BBC published an article which could mark the beginning of the end for the way we see our doctor as we know it.

According to research by the BBC, GPs are seeing just seven in every 100 patients face-to-face because of Covid-19.

That in itself is startling but the BBC analysis also found that fewer than 1 per cent of appointments were done through a video link in 2019.

The words ‘seismic change’ and ‘NHS’ aren’t usually uttered in the same sentence but it’s a stunning transformation by anyone’s standards.

What it illustrates is that when it comes to using technology within primary care the genie is well and truly out of the lamp and is unlikely to go back in quietly once Covid-19 crisis has been dealt with.

Coronavirus has, inadvertently, created a perfect storm for greater integration of technology into our healthcare sector.

A long time before Covid-19, the calls for the NHS to adopt technology were gathering pace.

People like Marc Schmid, of Redmoor Health, which specialises in applying tech digital solutions on the frontline of health and social care, has long made the case for greater use of technology within the NHS.

He wrote in BusinessCloud last September that embracing technology had the potential to tackle the problem of GP retention but also improve patientcare in the process.

Fast forward to January 2020 and the Health secretary Matt Hancock (a well known tech supporter) said there was “no excuse” for NHS organisations not to have a digital and tech leader on every board.

“Every CEO needs to be comfortable and competent in leading digital transformation; every board needs to know what questions to ask, how to hold their CEO to account; every medical director and chief nurse needs to know how technology is going to transform what their teams do and lead that adoption,” he said.

Clearly the politician couldn’t have predicted the impact of Covid-19 back then (including to his own health) but if there’s one crumb of comfort to come out of the pandemic it’s that’s it has broken down a lot of the opposition towards technology.

It’s hard to believe but it was only at the start of March that NHS bosses announced they wanted England’s 7,000 GP surgeries to replace face-to-face patient appointments with remote consultations to reduce the risk of someone with the virus turning up at the surgery and passing it on.

To put that into proportion there are 340 million appointments every year with GPs and other practice staff and before Covid-19 only 1 per cent of these were carried out on video.

Because of the rules on social distancing, GP surgeries were forced to use phone, video, online or text contact instead and the system has worked pretty well.

Now patients are initially assessed on the phone before booking either a call or video link with a doctor. According to the BBC research only about seven per cent are having a face-to-face appointment with their GP.

The big question going forward is what the system will look like once the Covid-19 emergency has been resolved.

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), predicted in the same BBC article that phone or online could account for up to 50 per cent of appointments in the future.

Clearly many patients will still require face-to-face appointments, including home visits to people unable to get to the surgery.

But greater use of technology won’t just be restricted to GP appointments. Preston-based Redmoor Health recently won a contract to train clinicians and GP practice staff on using new technology including Microsoft Teams, in particular showing them how they can develop group video consultations.

It seems impossible to imagine that when Covid-19 has been dealt with GP surgeries won’t continue to offer some type of triage service in the future to assess patients before they see the doctor – if they end up seeing a doctor at all.