GPs have been challenged to improve access to NHS services, with new pilot schemes looking set to give patients alternative ways to consult with their local doctor.
Millions are set to benefit from David Cameron's £50m GP Access Fund, which will see more than 1000 GP practices in England extend their opening hours and introduce innovative new ways of delivering services, such as greater use of phone consultations, video calls and email.
Web-based consultations are one of the new tactics some NHS GPs will be testing-out and I know from my own experience as an online doctor that these could prove a popular option for certain patients.
People lead busy lives and want to have their health needs met at a time and place that suits. I've no doubt evening and weekend appointments at GP practices will be a welcome addition for many patients, but technology can play a pivotal role in delivering more accessible healthcare too.
In fact the latest YouGov research commissioned by Pharmacy2U last month revealed widespread appetite for digital healthcare across the UK, with one in four people (26 per cent) saying they'd be prepared to have a consultation with a doctor online.
A growing trend
In today's internet-driven age most of us already manage countless aspects of our lives online; from shopping and banking to networking with friends and booking holidays - so the rise of online healthcare can be considered a natural step.
People can be wary of new online services though and want to feel assured that their personal information is kept safe. A crucial element of successful digital healthcare is robust IT systems, which people can use easily, securely and confidently. This of course needs to be underpinned by the 'real-life' medical professionals who run the service.
Having been involved in digital healthcare since 2009, I've seen it gain significant momentum in general practice medicine over recent years - although most notably in the private sector. As medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service, I've witnessed first-hand the growing popularity of e-consultations and the willingness of patients to consult with a GP via the internet.
Thousands of patients use our service and it is particularly popular for those who don't find it convenient to visit their local GP or have symptoms they find embarrassing or prefer not to discuss face-to-face - such as skin problems, weight gain and erectile dysfunction. Although not suited to all situations, it provides a useful option.
An NHS viewpoint
From an NHS perspective, getting the technology in place to offer comprehensive digital GP services can be challenging. Although many patients are already being given the ability to book appointments and order repeat prescriptions via the internet, the widespread availability of online consultations from the NHS looks likely to be some way off.
It will however be interesting to see how the pilot schemes in England are implemented and the response they receive from patients, as well as the doctors involved.
The performance of digital initiatives versus extended opening will be intriguing, as what may be fairly small-scale steps at the moment, could potentially progress to great leaps towards the more accessible NHS of the future.