THE BLOG
19/10/2015 11:25 BST | Updated 18/10/2016 06:12 BST

Tech Will Never Replace GPs... But It Will Make Them More Accessible

How long does it take you to get an appointment to see your GP? If simply asking this question has set your pulse racing and temper soaring, take heart. Technology is coming to the rescue.

According to many news headlines, you are not alone. Average appointment waiting times have lengthened - predominantly due to a growing (and aging) population paired with a drastic shortage of GPs. In fact according to a study by Pulse, the average waiting time for one in four practices in the UK is now two weeks.

There is no avoiding it - getting a doctor's appointment can be difficult.

However, did you also know that well over a quarter of a million appointments are wasted every week in England alone? In fact, if all the DNA (did not attend) appointments over the course of a year were given to those unable to get an appointment, it would almost halve the number of patients struggling to see their GP.

In an ideal world of course, everyone would be able to see their GP quickly. So how can we move closer to this Utopia when a mixture of budget pressure, recruitment issues and patient demand are creating hurdles in every direction? For me, technology has to play a big role - firstly, in helping to determine if a GP appointment is needed at all.

Recently, the NHS Alliance and the Primary Care Foundation revealed that 27% of appointments could be freed up by better use of technology and collaboration between patients and clinicians.

A tool called eConsult is a good example. This online self-triage and patient information service enables patients, via a symptom checker, to understand whether they need an appointment or self-help information and signposting to other health services.

Trialled in 20 practices over six months, the service had a dramatic impact - in 60% of cases patients found they were able to resolve their health concerns without seeing a doctor.

EMIS Health is currently working with Hurley Group to help make the service available to all GP practices. Similar 'triage tech' can be found up and down the country. For example, a telephone consultation scheme in Portsmouth has helped cut the number of face-to-face appointments by 50 per cent.

Of course, one size never fits all and in some cases tech becomes the post-triage solution. For example, in 2014 Moss Side Medical Practice in Manchester implemented a 'rapid assessment' scheme where a triage GP is available every day as a first point of patient contact. Patients are then offered the best route forward for their specific needs including the option of a telephone or video-consultation. The practice found around half the patients who arrived at the surgery every day did not actually need a face-to-face GP appointment.

For those that do require GP consultation, video/virtual appointments are becoming increasingly popular.

Back in 2013, NHS Local asked members of the public about their views on and interest in such services. The outcome was telling; 52% of people said they would like to consult their GP via video. Indeed, 14% said they would actually be more likely to discuss sensitive issues through this medium.

Fast forward to 2015 and, while GPs themselves are split on the issue, the patient appeal of video is evident in a raft of successful pilot programmes - many of which were kick-started by the Prime Minister's Challenge Fund.

The Vitality Partnership - a single GP organisation spanning 13 locations across Sandwell and Birmingham - is a great example of this. In addition to adopting video-consultations, the Partnership has implemented a broad range of virtual (telephone/web) alternatives for patients to access their GP.

In April, The Vitality Partnership announced that 66% of patients are now being dealt with remotely, resulting in a 25% reduction in appointment time. The cost savings are clear: it is estimated that every 1% reduction in face-to-face appointments saves the NHS £200m.

So what's the catch? Security is important - particularly in relation to video consultations. But it can be addressed by implementing the right safeguards. Careful planning, implementation and most importantly, clearly communicating with patients are all vital.

All the practices I've referenced in this blog will have followed strict Information Governance advice when establishing their systems and communicated these measures, along with any risks, to their patients.

Let me be clear. Nobody is saying that the medical knowledge, experience and care that a GP offers can be replicated by any kind of technology. What I, and many others, do believe is that there are brilliant telephone, web and mobile solutions out there that can support our GPs and ultimately help them to be more accessible to their patients. Surely that is an objective we can all get behind.