UK should ramp up online GP consultations, advises report


A large-scale shift towards online GP appointments could reduce no shows, save businesses up to £1.5 billion in lost employee work time, and free up considerable capacity, says a new report.

The study – carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) – found that just 13% of consultations were carried out by phone in 2019, with 1% conducted via a video call or another digital channel.

Under the five-year GP contract in England all practices are expected to offer online consultations by April 2021, but the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated take-up.

Figures from the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) suggest that at the peak of the crisis in April, well over two-thirds (71%) of consultations were delivered remotely.

The CBER study, published by insurer AXA PPP healthcare, says that the benefits of maintaining and expanding the use of online consultations as COVID-19 lockdowns ease should not be overlooked, particularly as the UK tries to restore economic growth.

It would cut costs to UK businesses by £1.5 billion (around $1.9 billion), with the savings coming from lost work time as employees travel to appointments. If virtual GP appointments had been offered as a first point of call across all public GP practices in 2019, face-to-face consultations could have been reduced by 50 million.

An earlier AXA PPP survey found that more than 40% of working UK adults needed to take half a day or more off work to attend a face-to-face appointment with their GP in the last 12 months.

“Patients stand to gain too – from reduced travel costs and, for those who are self-employed, even a reduced loss of earnings,” commented Dr Arup Paul, deputy chief medical officer at AXA PPP.

Meanwhile, missed GP consultations are a drain on NHS resources - with 5% of all appointments missed last year according to NHS Digital data.

The CEBR reckons online GPs could help to reduce the amount of 'no shows' – predicting that a 20% reduction could free the equivalent of 60 years of GP consulting time every year.

AXA PPP poll data found that work and family commitments accounted for 28% and 26% of missed appointments, with another 26% unattended because symptoms had resolved beforehand.

The CBER study says that allowing patients to book, amend and cancel appointments easily – and giving them flexibility to book times that are suitable to them – could help reduce no shows.

“As we’ve seen during the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is tremendous potential for such services,” concludes the report.

“When the pandemic has passed, let us build on these learnings to transform the way we access primary care – for the better.”