The rural population in England has grown by over half a million people over the last ten years. 9.7 million people currently live in rural areas, an increase from 9.1 million in 2011. Because of their geographical isolation, rural communities can often struggle to access the healthcare they need.
Rural populations typically face longer distances to GPs, dentists and other health facilities compared to urban residents. According to Public Health England and the Local Government Association’s ‘Health and wellbeing in rural areas’ report, rural residents can experience ‘distance decay’, where service use decreases with increasing distance.
Technology can play an integral part in meeting rising demand for primary care services amongst rural communities.
NHS England set out its key focus areas in the ‘2022/23 priorities and operational planning guidance’. Three of those priorities were to ‘improve timely access to primary care’, ‘address health inequalities’ and ‘utilise the potential of digital technologies to transform the delivery of care and patient outcomes.'
In this article, we will explore some of the reasons why it can be harder to access primary care for those living in rural areas and how digital tools can help mitigate these problems.
What are the difficulties rural communities face when accessing primary care?
Having access to public transport can be a particular issue for people living in rural areas. The Rural Services Network noted in their ‘APPG Rural Health & Care’ that poor public transport is often a major issue for rural communities. They found that it takes over an hour to travel to a healthcare facility in rural areas, compared to around 30 minutes for those in urban areas.
The ‘Health and Wellbeing in rural areas’ report have also noted that 72% of people in rural communities can walk to a bus stop in under six minutes, compared to 95% in urban areas. Having an online consultation solution would mean that people who would normally be struggling to travel to their GP can now attend their appointments remotely.
In 2020, the majority of those living in rural areas were aged between 50 – 59 years, compared to 25 – 34 years in urban areas. Living rurally, like we mentioned earlier, means that these older patients may struggle accessing the services they need for 'more intensive, immediate, invasive and complex responses'.
We recognise that some older patients may be wary of using new forms of technology as a means of contacting their GP. However, digital systems can use voice assistance which allows patients who cannot access a computer to submit a request using a telephone transcription. This not only gives the ageing population greater independence, but it also reduces pressure on the traditional contact method – the reception telephone line.
Further away from health services
Living in rural communities also means that people are further away from health services. According to Nuffield Trust, only 19% of the rural population are around a 20-minute walk from a pharmacy, compared with 98% in urban areas. Because of this increased distance, patients may not be visiting a medical professional as frequently as they may need to, suffering with health issues that could be being treated.
A digital tool gives patients the ability to attend appointments remotely, making primary care more accessible and removing the issues that can come with travelling long distances (like expenses and travel time). With image document uploading and free text questionnaires, online consultations give the general practitioner a detailed account of their patient’s query. They can then either offer help digitally or ask the patient to visit the practice if their needs require an in-person consultation.
Fewer service options
Rural areas tend to have a limited availability of services compared to urban areas. For example, if a patient cannot book an appointment with their GP, they are unlikely to have an alternative service (like a walk-in centre) that someone living in an urban area would have the option to use.
Digital tools can use artificial intelligence to automatically triage queries, so the most important appointments are flagged as a priority. The least urgent cases are logged in the system for the next available time slot. This helps to standardise care across rural communities, so that all patients can utilise their primary care service without the worry of looking to a less accessible alternative.
How can technology benefit rural patients and general practice?
Those in rural communities may feel distanced or isolated from health services, potentially leading to them not getting the help they need. Being able to contact their GP without needing to travel long distances to their practice helps to promote patient confidence and independence, whilst reducing possible non-attendances.
Digitally booking appointments and attending consultations helps patients to take control over their care because they can explain their queries in their own words, in their own time. PATCHS breaks down barriers of access to general practice with the use of innovative technology to ensure that all patients can submit requests, improving health equality and patient confidence.
Trying to book an appointment as soon as the busy reception telephone line opens can be frustrating for patients desperately needing to speak with their GP. According to the NHS GP Patient Survey 2022, 47% said it was ‘not easy’ trying to get through the practice’s telephone line. And living rurally means that without securing an appointment, there may not be an accessible alternative.
The PATCHS consultation system allows patients to submit a digital or telephone request at any time of day. The solution includes key functionalities, such as image and document uploads, 2-way messaging, language translation and video capability to accommodate to patient and practice needs.
Time saved for professionals
Digital technologies like PATCHS automatically triage requests based on urgency. This means that GPs can respond to high-priority appointments first and help those patients as quickly as possible. This automatic workflow also means the time spent allocating requests is reduced so all general practice staff can shift their focus to the other needs of the day.
PATCHS artificial intelligence will also flag mental health related queries. GPs are then able to refer that patient to other services where specifically trained professionals can offer the appropriate support.