Expectations of primary care have evolved in recent years, prompting discussions around the adoption of virtual consultations as an alternative to face-to-face appointments.
General practice has seen significant levels of transformation while adapting to a blended model of care. And we recognise that digital technologies need to compliment traditional face-to-face consultations, rather than replacing them with an online equivalent to the unsuitable ‘one size fits all’ appointment process.
How has general practice changed to enhance patient experience?
Previously, patients looking to book an appointment with their GP would phone the reception team (generally as soon as the lines opened), waiting in the call queue to try and book an appointment for the same day.
In recent years, more and more patients have been accessing their GP practice digitally. Many GP practices have experienced a transition from traditional face-to-face appointments to virtual consultations, with some patients preferring to book online. We know this because of a 2021 study by The Health Foundation, who found that 72% of all patient requests were initiated online.
Digital tools can offer more flexibility of access compared to traditional processes due to the types of functionalities available. Patients can gain more control over their care, going online to book clinical appointments, request medical records or obtain test results. But also, over the way they receive their care, being able to express a preference for the type of consultation or method of response they need.
Within the General Medical Council Good Practice Guidance, it states that ‘Patients may prefer to access healthcare services face-to-face or through remote consultations via telephone, video-link or online, depending on their individual needs and circumstances. Where different options exist, and when it is within your power, you should agree with the patient which mode of consultation is most suitable for them.’
In The Health Foundation study mentioned earlier, 55% of patients surveyed stated a preference for telephone consultations (compared to 44% pre-pandemic) with over 1/3 of patients requesting an SMS or online messaging response (compared to 26% pre-pandemic).
We can further evidence the growing use of alternative contact methods when we compare data from the last few years. In January 2020, 28 million GP appointments were booked in total with only 3.7 million being conducted over the phone.
A stark contrast to January 2023. Of the 29 million total appointments, 8 million were delivered as telephone consultations. This means that telephone appointments have effectively doubled in the last three years, with in-person consultations reducing by over 3 million.
How does technology mitigate traditional consultation challenges?
Taking pressure off the telephone line
In the GP Patient Survey 2022, almost half of patients (47%) said it is not easy to get through to their GP practice on the phone. The ‘fastest finger first’ approach to booking an appointment is clearly a barrier for many people trying to contact their GP.
Digital tools can triage online requests based on urgency. Patients can book an appointment with their GP themselves with the ability to see what appointment slots are available. And by having this alternative route for patients to request appointments online, it helps to ease pressure on the telephone line so those who need to urgently contact the practice, can quickly do so.
Within the 2022/23 priorities and operational planning guidance, it states that digital tools should ensure that every patient is offered digital-first primary care, with the aim that ‘… patients can access easily and consistently online, [for] them to quickly reach the right service for their needs’
Digital tools utilising two-way messaging can help staff and patients keep in touch with each other at their convenience, helping to reduce pressure and improve efficiency. This can be in the form of an update to the patient, letting them know of messages that have been sent from the practice or they can work like instant messaging if the patient and member of staff are available at the same time.
Range of access
30 million users are now registered on the NHS app which this clearly demonstrates that patients are increasingly confident and able to access health information and services via their mobile phones. And for those who are not registered to the NHS app, they can easily access their practice online by clicking the banner on their GP practice website.
We understand that not all patients will be digitally enabled. Digital tools should therefore complement the traditional process, rather than replacing it entirely. This is why along with the original telephone line, general practice staff such as the reception team - or the patient’s carer - can submit requests on the patient’s behalf, being triaged in the same way as online bookings. This helps to ensure equal access to primary care for those who are not able to utilise the consultation technology themselves.
Traditionally, many patients would visit their GP in person for frequent face-to-face check-ins to monitor their ongoing care. And this can be a particular struggle for those living rurally. Living far away from their primary care centre or having less access to public transport can make it difficult for patients to get to their GP practice in-person.
Digital tools may include functionalities that allow patients to submit medical readings digitally (such as their blood pressure results) without having to travel to the practice in-person. And if these readings show a risk to their health, the patient and the practice will be alerted to call 999.
Get in touch
Online consultation technology needs to accommodate and support every patient coming into contact with their GP service. That is why we designed our PATCHS solution to consider the individual needs and preferences of both patients and primary care staff, in order to provide remote and face-to-face consultations.
PATCHS is our online GP consultation solution that employs innovative artificial intelligence, free-text questions, and language translation to enhance both you staff and your patient’s experience.
Find out more about our PATCHS solution today.