The recent news that the UK Government wants all local surgeries to open from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, has sparked a media frenzy. Some senior doctors have criticised the plans as "unrealistic and unachievable", given that analysis of existing opening times showed that just 1% of practices see patients on both Saturday and Sunday, and three-quarters are closed for the entire weekend. But does it really need to be a question of longer opening hours, for the already stretched NHS?
As part of the announcement the government has launched The Challenge Fund, which is expected to include provisions for GPs to carry out patient consultations via video conferencing, secure email and telephone. There's plenty of evidence that conducting business meetings by video improves productivity, by cutting down time wasted through travel, but it's also true of healthcare consultations. Beyond that, travelling to appointments can be stressful and detrimental to the health of patients, reducing this would have positive health benefits. The healthier the patient the less they need to visit their doctor, it's a win-win situation.
Video solutions are also providing improved patient care in out-patient consultations at Evelina London Children's Hospital. By using video to monitor ultrasound images from the surgery theatre, paediatric cardiology consultants are able to spend more time with patients, and less time travelling between the clinic and the theatre.
NHS medical director Prof Sir Bruce Keogh has said that Britain's citizens were being failed by current ways of working, but I don't think that has to mean extending opening hours. It's about access, not time, and access can be digital in many cases.
NHS Cumbria and Lancashire Cardiac and Stroke Network (CSNLC) have improved out-of-hours care in rural locations, where specialists may be located a long way away. The network utilizes video conferencing software on consultant's laptops to improve the outcomes of stroke victims by connecting patients with remote doctors in the time-critical early intervention stage of a stroke.
Health Minister Norman Lamb has recognised the need for the NHS and other healthcare services to embrace the new technologies of the digital age in order to provide the necessary care to the UK population. It's important to remember though, that these technologies must be safe and secure, when dealing with highly sensitive information such as medical records. Many of the consumer video solutions mentioned by the press are simply not reliable enough, nor are they secure enough (often proprietary and closed systems). But safe doesn't have to mean complicated, healthcare providers in Europe are already using video software which allows them to send patients a simple hyperlink, which opens a secure video call with their medical professional (no apps, no downloads).
In the future I believe telemedicine will become the norm, with us accessing our medical care in ever more convenient ways, and receiving a better quality of care as a result.