Under reforms to the GP contract published in January, all patients will have the right to “digital-first” primary care, including web and video consultations by April 2021.
But Dr Helen Atherton, who leads a digital health research group at Warwick Medical School, said the plans meant surgeries had to offer virtual consultations “even where they have decided this can’t be safely done with the practice’s current workforce.”
The rise of private providers offering video consultations “puts additional pressure on general practice to offer similar services, and for practices that are feeling over-stretched this may be viewed as a final straw,” she said.
What’s the context
A survey by Warwick Medical School, published in the BMJ Open last week, found that 40% of GPs plan to quit their jobs within the next five years due to high workload and low morale. When asked to rate recently introduced national initiatives to address workforce issues, GPs rated video and e-consultations negatively.
Professor Jeremy Dale, who leads the research at Warwick, said the policy on virtual consultations was viewed as “a potential additional pressure” to GPs already feeling “worn down and demoralised”.
The research follows a study published in the British Journal of General Practice last year, which found that e-consultations did not reduce workload.
What’s the impact
“Many GPs remain concerned that e-consultations that are not limited by time and place in the way more traditional consultations are, have the potential to increase workload resulting from unlimited demand,” said Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair.
He called for “adequate funding and staff” to support virtual consultations and “a recognition that face to face appointments will be the only safe way of assessing and treating many patients.”
However, John Kell, head of policy at the Patients Association, said it was “crucial to understand the potential as well as the risk of this type of innovation”.
Patients should be at the centre of piloting and adequate safeguards put in place “to ensure the utmost protection of patients’ personal data," he said.
On the record
"The emphasis on widening choice for patients using digital means to consult with GPs in the NHS long-term plan is interesting and will be very attractive to some patient groups but they won't not be suitable for others - and they don't necessarily reduce workload for GPs,” said Royal College of GPs chair, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard.
“If practices do choose to offer them, then it should be using approaches known to be safe and secure and be provided in addition to traditional services, not instead of them.”