Virtual GP clinics – are they accessible as they need to be?

As the the pandemic accelerates a move towards remote doctors appointments, work still needs to be done to ensure that digital healthcare is easy and accessible. Sam Jansen explores the practical steps needed to ensure people are comfortable with virtual clinics and the tech involved.

Behind the swathe of headlines lauding the way in which GPs and patients have embraced digital healthcare, there lies a somewhat uncomfortable truth. Some of the most vulnerable patients, who need virtual access to their doctor, are likely to struggle using some video tools.

Whether it’s a reluctance to change their ways, fear of the unknown, concerns about privacy, or technical barriers, the fantastic advancements we’ve seen in digital healthcare recently come with very real dangers of creating an age, gender and digital divide.

Data from Ofcom in 2020 found that just under one in five over-75s use a smartphone. Older people, as well as people with disabilities, women and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are even less likely to use the internet. A report from Accenture additionally found 38% of people rank data privacy or security as their top concern when it comes to using digital health services, while a fifth question how effective they are.

This is despite the fact a switch to digital services could save the NHS billions of pounds. Money that could be put into improving care, training and hiring more staff, reducing waiting times, funding research and much more.

Missed UK GP appointments, for instance, are estimated to cost the NHS more than £150 million per year. A cost attributed to the often “unacceptable” wait times for appointments, which results in people forgetting about them. Switching to virtual clinics has been cited as a way to tackle this issue. Elsewhere, estimates show that increasing the use of digital health apps could save the NHS £2 billion per year.

COVID-19 has, undoubtedly accelerated the digital transformation of healthcare across the UK. Around 99% of GP practices now offer remote consultations and nine in 10 GPs have said they want this to remain.

Those who can’t, or don’t feel comfortable using such services may not feel they’ve had time to adjust; they may feel left behind. At the same time, trust in doctors and other providers to keep data secure dropped from 89% in 2019 to 83% last year, suggesting there is a wider, contextual shift occurring.

How, then, do we help those who need, but may not want, digital help with the demands and expectations of those who have already embraced it?

“Whether it’s a distrust of the unknown, distrust of tech companies, or distrust of the government’s approach to patient care generally, restoring faith in virtual clinics is key”

Take stock

The first step is to look at the services that have sprung up over the past year; to take stock of where we are and how we can streamline these services. For many clinicians, especially those who hadn’t taken any steps towards digital transformation, they may have made knee-jerk reactions to IT decisions in the wake of Covid.

Some may have cobbled together various services and now depend on multiple third-party apps. Some may still be relying on consumer-led, rather than healthcare-focused, services. Services that don’t have adequate security and privacy features enabled by default. Others may have over-invested in a single, off-the-shelf service that no longer fits their needs, or never really did.

All are costly. All could be making the situation, and divide, worse. Not least because half of those surveyed in the Accenture report said that a bad digital experience with a healthcare provider ruins the entire experience.

As the vaccine roll-out continues, and GPs find more of a rhythm to their everyday appointments again, it’s time to reassess what is, and isn’t important when it comes to providing digital healthcare in the long-term.

If clinicians know that people are concerned about security, privacy, and ease-of-use, these should be the pillars upon which every service introduced to patients is built on. An all-in-one, bespoke solution developed specifically with the NHS, GPs and patients in mind is the key to ticking these boxes.

Be transparent

To encourage, and reassure, patients who are reluctant to attend virtual clinics, more should be done on communicating about the service.

Clinicians should be reaching patients wherever they are; whether that’s via a recorded message when they phone up for an appointment, posters around their surgeries and clinics, even flyers in local stores, pharmacies and on bus stops – to name a few. Posting an explainer, with an FAQ, may also be the most effective and trustworthy way to reach those on the fringes of their respective communities.

Build trust

Whether it’s a distrust of the unknown, distrust of tech companies, or distrust of the government’s approach to patient care generally, restoring faith in virtual clinics is key.

GPs being careful and considered about which services they use, and only selecting those with patient needs at heart, is the first step. Making sure these changes, their benefits and how to get support should something go wrong are well communicated, is second.

The third step towards building trust is to not lose it. Clinicians need to make sure they partner with reliable services that suit the needs of all their patients, not just a select few. They need to call back when they say they will; they need to make sure sending digital prescriptions are handled as smoothly as they would be by hand; they need to ask patients which types of appointments they feel comfortable with and meet their mutual needs.

We need bespoke solutions for NHS trusts and GPs that cover managing appointments, to virtual consultations, auto-transcriptions, file sharing and one-way patient triage using video conferencing software.

For patients, virtual waiting rooms and easy-to-use menus which can be used on any device – without the need for various apps and logins – are appealing and can reach as many patients as possible.

When it comes to our health, no other area impacts so widely as well as so acutely, on the rest of our lives. By embracing smart partnerships, which marry secure, reliable and easy-to-use services with bespoke solutions built to address the unique needs of healthcare professionals, we may be able to close the divide now, before it’s too late.

About the author

Sam Jansen is CTO at StarLeaf. He joined the company as a founder member of the engineering team more than 10 years ago. He has an academic background in computer science with experience working in a variety of tech roles.