Many people are turning to online healthcare for convenience but are the growing numbers of online services providing adequate care?
Today the Care Quality Commission (CQC) indicated that many online GP services are not performing satisfactorily. 40% of independent app-based and online GP consultation services were found not to be providing ‘safe’ services in at least one area.
Inappropriate prescriptions of antibiotics and high levels of opioids are thought to have been administered without first consulting patient’s registered GPs.
With the average waiting time for a GP appointment hovering around two weeks in the UK, it’s no surprise that an increasing amount of patients are turning to online services for speedier and more convenient medical advice.
Companies such as Push Doctor provide mobile app services that can connect patients to a GP via video call “within minutes” of requesting a consultation. Push Doctor claim that “on average our patients wait just six minutes to see a doctor”.
But are shorter waiting times and ease of access at the expense of quality?
The clear drawback of these services is the lack of face-to-face contact with medical professionals. For certain diagnoses, physical contact is essential. For example, the breathing of patients suffering from asthma or respiratory issues can’t accurately be assessed over a video call. This would require, at the very least, the use of a stethoscope.
We reached out to Manchester-based Pharmacist Thorrun Govind, who’s appeared on BBC’s Newsnight in the past to discuss cuts to pharmacy services in the UK. “Even more in this age of increasing automation and digitalisation, the face to face relationship between health professionals and patients matters.” she says.
“The main problem I have is people use online companies but when there’s a problem they always end up having to come back to face-to-face pharmacies. There are countless examples of where community pharmacies have had to step in, which highlights how important face-to-face care is.”
Govind also flagged the potential issues regarding medicine storage when using online services who send their medicines directly to patients in the post. This could be problematic if there’s a delay, she claims, as medicines need to be stored in regulated conditions. Unopened insulin, for example, needs to be kept refrigerated to prevent it from being damaged.
Not having access to patient’s medical records also hinders the level of service online GPs are able to offer. Patient’s health records are extremely valuable during consultation as relying purely on patients to recount their medical history provides room for inaccuracy.
The Future of Modern Medicine
Online GP services are extremely convenient for busy professionals who struggle to find suitable time slots at their local surgeries. Having the ability to book a ten-minute video appointment saves time, travel expense and having to miss work to see a doctor.
Eren Ozagir, the CEO and founder Push Doctor, told the Guardian in 2016 that “anyone aged from 18 to 45, which is our core audience, wants to have things come to them, not the other way around”. At the time, he reported that the service had over 7000 GPs sign up to provide consultations to users but was reluctant to provide the number of patients using his service.
Professor Steve Field, the chief inspector of General Practice for the CQC, is slightly apprehensive, but ultimately supportive of online care services such as Push Doctor: “This way of delivering primary care has an important place in the future of health provision – but it is still evolving”.
Not having to leave home to receive professional medical advice is a big plus to those who are too unwell to travel to their local GP. On their website, Push Doctor explains that after an online GP check-up, they can send a sick note via first class mail and contact employers themselves. All the while, the patient hasn’t even had to leave their bed.
Professor Field also suggests that “while innovation should be encouraged, it must never come at the expense of quality”.