Director of Distribution and Marketing
At the start of 2021, I wrote an insight asking whether a widespread change was afoot when it came to the way we accessed remote healthcare services. Now, whilst I won’t take any credit for being a trend setter, I can safely say that it remains a hot topic of conversation!
Remote GP appointments have continued to be offered throughout 2021, so how have we continued to access these services and what has been the appetite for online or virtual appointments?
A clear preference
Given the option, face-to-face appointments remain the preferred way that people wish to engage with their GP1.
This is highlighted by the increase of in-person appointments that coincided with the easing of social distancing restrictions during the summer months. In October 2021, more than 30 million GP appointments were made in England alone, 64% of which were conducted in-person, up almost 10% in six months1.
For those hoping for a return to predominantly face-to-face appointments, these numbers will make for reassuring reading. But it remains to be seen if they reach pre-pandemic levels when 80% of patients were seen in this way1. Particularly given the ongoing threat of new coronavirus strains and the potential for the introduction of stricter social distancing measures.
Telephone versus online
The continued use of remote appointments has largely been fulfilled by telephone. In the six months up to and including February 2020, these accounted for 13% of all appointments. Increasing to an average of 40% between March 2020 and September 20211.
In contrast, the number of appointments completed online or through video consultations in the same period has fallen slightly. In October 2021, just 0.5% of patients were seen in this way1.
Online services – a slow burner?
The provision and usage of digital healthcare services within our industry has been one of our big successes in recent years. But we have not faced anywhere near as many challenges as the NHS in successfully rolling these out.
Whilst the NHS long-term plan for care places a heavy focus on the use of technology to access healthcare, it will take time and investment to build the infrastructure to support such an approach.
What is more, the NHS doesn’t benefit from a relatively captive audience with the means to access such services.
Choice is key
A recent report from Healthwatch England highlighted language barriers, age, disability, and affordability as some of the reasons people can feel digitally excluded2. Ultimately this prevents them from accessing remote services via telephone or online.
This is a timely reminder that whilst technology provides speed and convenience, it can also create barriers for those who may be considered most vulnerable. Whether delivered in person, via telephone, or through video calls, there is no generic approach to healthcare, especially on a national scale.
This applies to private services too. Whether accessed independently or through insurance products, they will continue to play an important role in helping the NHS meet patient demands.
Our collective aim should be to provide the best possible care as quickly and effectively as possible. But if the services we provide are not easily accessible, or flexible enough to meet patient needs, they simply won’t be used.
1 – NHS Digital, Appointments in General Practice, October 2021