Digital technology has transformed almost every industry and so many aspects of our lives. We can now get shopping delivered to our front door, do our banking from our phones, book a holiday in a matter of minutes online. Yet when it comes to healthcare, we have been snail like in embracing technology. Just 3.9% of NHS patients use online appointment booking to get an appointment with their GP. For most, the frantic telephone call at 8am to try to get through to the surgery reception remains a reality. And the average wait to see a GP is two weeks and rising.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the technology available to make life far easier for patients and to ease the strain on overstretched GPs. And we can consign the days of waiting weeks to see your doctor to the history books.
A few weeks ago a new NHS service called GP at Hand was launched in London, giving Londoners access to an NHS GP via their mobile phone, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It has plans to roll out nationally in the future.
A number of NHS GPs in London are making use of technology to deliver this service, which was initially piloted in Essex and West London.
The service cuts down the wait to see a GP from the current average of two weeks to just a matter of hours, yet has met with opposition from several doctors groups, who claim it will break down the traditional relationship between GP and patient and that only young, healthy people would use a digital service.
So what is the role for technology in delivering healthcare? Is it something that should be embraced or is it a threat to our health?
I believe harnessing technology and digital innovation is in fact critical to the future of our NHS. We know we having an ageing population and the NHS is coming under ever increasing demands, with finite resources to deal with that demand. We know our GPs are coming under increasing strain too. GP registrations are up 10% in London alone. And that has knock-on effects, such as people going to A&E when their problem could have been dealt with by a GP, putting further strain on the health service. If, as the government says, we want to deliver a true 7 days a week NHS, we have to start making use of the benefits and efficiencies technology can bring, as almost every other industry has. It’s the only way we’ll be able to continue meeting the ever increasing demand on our NHS whilst continuing to deliver first class care.
We can FaceTime friends and relatives who are half way around the world, it makes sense to be able to have a video consultation with a doctor within minutes rather than waiting weeks for an appointment. And it means problems can be tackled early on and nipped in the bud rather than being allowed to get worse whilst people wait to see a doctor.
And I take issue with the patronising suggestion that older people can’t also benefit from this kind of service. Recent figures from the ONS show the proportion of older people using the internet to keep in touch with family members has doubled over the last six years. These figures also revealed women over 75 showed the greatest increase in internet use of any demographic group. An Ofcom report showed that 48% of 65 to 74-year-olds have a social media profile.
The benefits of being able to see a GP quickly on your phone from the comfort of your home can be felt just as much by older people as they can be by younger, busy workers.
From admin to diagnostics to medical monitoring, technology offers us solutions to put patients in control of their own care and to deliver savings to our health service.
The NHS is rightly a treasured institution in our country and I am proud to have been serving NHS patients for almost 20 years. In the 20th century, the NHS was the first health service in the world to make healthcare universally available and in the 21st century, it is once again leading the way in using technology to make high quality healthcare more accessible to all. We should be glad it is doing so.