The shortage of NHS GPs means many patients are facing a lengthy wait for a doctor’s appointment - and increasing numbers are turning to a digital doctor for healthcare advice.
Figures released last month show the number of people waiting at least a week to see their GP rose by 500,000 in 2015, to 14.2 million patients, possibly because the number of GPs hasn’t kept pace with our growing, and ageing, population.
But figures also suggest a growing trend for people turning to the web to consult doctors. A recent survey by Push Doctor found 62% of Brits have used online technology to access healthcare, either through online consultations, accessing medical records, booking appointments and ordering repeat prescriptions.
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), says: “With waiting times for appointments getting longer, there is the potential for apps and medical devices to support health professionals explore alternative ways of delivering care to patients.
“Anything that encourages patients to take an interest in their health is a good thing - and advances in technology bring enormous potential to support patients to care for themselves, and help them to foster active lifestyles.”
From last month, all GPs have to provide patients with online access to detailed information in their GP records, and most also allow patients to book and cancel appointments, and order repeat prescriptions online.
In addition, increasing numbers of online doctor services are available, where patients register and can then book paid-for video consultations or live online chats with qualified GPs.
One such service is Push Doctor (www.pushdoctor.co.uk), which charges £1 for the first consultation, and then £14 for each 10-minute video ‘appointment’ thereafter. Online prescriptions, referral letters and fit-for-work notes are also available at an additional cost.
Not surprisingly, younger age groups (those aged 18-24 and 35-44) are driving the adoption of online healthcare.
The Push Doctor survey, which quizzed more than 1,000 adults, found ordering repeat prescriptions is currently the most popular way Brits use technology to access healthcare (29%), followed by communicating with a GP via live webchat (22%), and video consultations (17%).
Nearly a third (30%) say they’d consult a GP via video if it meant they could have an appointment when and where they wanted, and 27% say they’d book a video consultation if they could have an immediate or same-day appointment.
Push Doctor founder Eren Ozagir says video consultations encourage increased patient choice and make seeing a GP more accessible.
“It’s a more practical and engaging way of consulting than a telephone appointment, and is allowing more timely care that works around the individual patient. The UK’s clinicians and patients are continuing to embrace technology and digital solutions in healthcare, from glucose monitors to video consultations, and they are doing so in increasing numbers. This is a positive move as it’s freeing clinician time, making health services more efficient and improving how we engage with and access healthcare.
“Ultimately, this comes down to providing greater patient choice - enabling them to have more control over how and when they access their healthcare.”
Services like Push Doctor take medical histories from the patients themselves, and Ozagir points out that this is the way it’s done in any private consultation.
However, Dr Baker says the RCGP has concerns about the patient-safety implications of services offering virtual consultations via smartphones.
“Patients will be having consultations with GPs who are unfamiliar with - and won’t necessarily have access to - their medical history, or information about drugs they’ve been prescribed,” she stresses.
“Medical histories provided by patients themselves will rarely be as comprehensive as those held by their family doctor. There are also many signs and symptoms that GPs look out for when making a diagnosis, that the patient might not think to raise.”
Furthermore, Dr Baker insists access to a GP should never be dependent on a patient’s ability to pay.
“We are very concerned about devices that charge patients to see a family doctor,” she adds. “This is something that would fundamentally change one of the founding principles of the NHS - that healthcare is free at the point of need.”
She says the focus should be on implementing aims to build the general practice workforce.
“This way, we can provide more appointments and give all our patients the care they need and deserve, free of charge on the NHS,” she says.
“Technology definitely has a place as part of a 21st century health service, but apps offering access to GPs for a fee are not the solution to the intense pressures facing general practice, or for our patients who are finding it difficult to make an appointment.”