A recent independent review of askmyGP, an online triage and telehealth consultation service deployed in the UK, suggests that patients seeking care online often behave similarly to those simply calling their practitioner’s office — particularly in terms of when during the day patients most often reach out to make an appointment.
Despite this broader trend, feedback from patients using the platform was mixed and suggest that the tool was convenient for some and more difficult for others, depending on their circumstances and reasons for seeking care.
"With online platforms there is an assumption that having a 24-7 ability to make contact with a general practice will cater to those who wish to deal with their health problem at a convenient time, often when the practice is shut,” Dr. Helen Atherton, an associate professor at Warwick Medical School and the study’s supervising author, said in a statement.
"In reality, patients were seeking access to health care at the same times and for the same sort of problems than they did using traditional routes. This suggests that patients' consulting behaviour will not be easily changed by introducing online platforms. Therefore practices should be clear as to exactly why they are introducing these online platforms, and what they want to achieve for themselves and their patients in doing so — the expectation may well not meet reality."
Among a sample of 5,447 askmyGP users, the researchers noted higher levels of use among women and patients aged 25 to 34 years. Users most often employed the services between 8:00 a.m. and 9:59 a.m. on weekdays, and between 8:00 p.m. and 9:59 p.m. on weekends, similar to those calling their practitioner’s office directly. Medication-related inquiries were among the most common reasons patients used the online platform (10.3 percent), with requests for access to any specific service being the least common (.08 percent).
In an accompanying qualitative analysis, a somewhat older body of patients (n = 569; mean age = 44.2 years) provided a mixed reception to the online service. Some users found it to be a more convenient medium for their particular needs — for example, a deaf user being able to avoid a phone call — while others said they preferred speaking about their condition with a live person. Many framed their experience with the tool based on the specifics of the problem they were calling with and whether or not the tool made it easier for them to receive care.
HOW IT WAS DONE
Researchers retrospectively analyzed data from patients receiving care from one of nine general practices that used askmyGP. These records included user demographics, usage patterns and the patients’ stated reasons for using the online triage platform. In addition, to identify qualitative trends and areas for general improvement, the researchers reviewed free-text comments provided by a subset of the patients that described the experience of using askmyGP.
The NHS’ long-term plan aims to provide digital GP appointments, like those offered through askmyGP, to all of the UK’s residents within the next few years. Having independent data on hand with which to gauge patients’ views on the services will play a key role in their continued rollout and design — especially when considering the mixed receptions that similar services have so far received.
“As official bodies and policymakers continue to promote use of digital services, additional research into patients’ demand for such services, and the barriers and enablers to using them, is necessary. Research into how such innovations are adopted and used will provide an understanding of unintended consequences and impact on access for some groups, for example, those who lack digital literacy. Further research should focus on the nature of the approach rather than the individual platform characteristics and should take a prospective approach, taking into account all the contacts a patient has with the practice and not just those with online platforms,” the researchers concluded.