You often hear patients complain about the long waiting times in surgeries and the difficulties of securing an appointment at their local practice. This is partly the reason for the increased popularity of online medical services, which offer patients increased access to medical advice.
These online platforms typically use Skype or video call to connect patients with medical professionals, allowing the patient to receive a diagnosis and a prescription if necessary.
As a third of patients find it difficult to get an appointment with their GP, the convenience and increased access to advice that is offered by online medical services is part of the success of these operators. Around 70% of patient complaints in GP surgeries could be completed by an online consultation, which would help to ease some of the congestion that many surgeries face.
Anyone who works full-time will appreciate how difficult and time-consuming it can be to get an appointment at their local surgery, so these online services will be a popular and attractive option for those pushed for time.
Aside from the enhanced convenience, online medical services can also be a cost-effective option. The UK’s NHS works alongside Babylon to offer patients online access to medical practitioners, with unlimited access to online consultations for just £50 per year. Other service providers charge patients per consultation or by the ten-minute slots, which can cause the cost to rise quite quickly if the consultation is complex.
What should I consider if I’m receiving an online consultation?
Concerns about the risks of seeking medical advice from these online services tend to focus on a few key areas, including:
- The accuracy of the diagnosis
- Prescription of medication
- Communication between the online medical practitioner and your GP
- Lack of a personal relationship between the patient and the online GP
Online medical services are regularly reviewed by the UK’s healthcare quality regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC). Although there has been a huge improvement in the reviews of these online providers in recent years, almost half still fail to provide “safe” care for patients.
One of the major advantages of receiving medical advice from your GP rather than an online medical service is that your GP will be able to review your medical history. The medical practitioners that provide online advice will be unaware of this history which significantly increases the risk of an incorrect diagnosis which can endanger your long-term health as well as prolong your current symptoms. This can also result in added stress and anxiety as your condition doesn’t improve.
Sometimes, your GP will have also built up a personal rapport with a patient which is invaluable when diagnosing a condition. Even seemingly minor factors such as a patient’s body language can help a medical practitioner to reach an accurate and reliable diagnosis. These visual clues are vital and unfortunately may not be evident during an online consultation. Continuity is incredibly important during the healthcare process and a diagnosis can be negatively affected by this lack of information.
The prescription of antibiotics and opioid-based medication, in particular, is one of the major concerns highlighted in the report by the CQC. A renowned law firm that provides advice on medical negligence claims explains that patients have previously been prescribed an extended course of high-strength opioid painkillers, without the knowledge of the patient’s regular GP. For example, a patient’s medical history may not necessarily be updated once they have received a prescription from an online GP. This lack of communication between the patient’s GP and the online medical service is concerning as the patient may be at risk. If the patient is especially vulnerable, they may not inform their GP of the medication that they have been prescribed elsewhere; information that would undoubtedly impact a GP’s diagnosis.
Sometimes a visit to your GP surgery is unavoidable. For example, if you are required to undergo tests as part of the diagnosis procedure then this is not something that can be done online! These tests can assist a medical practitioner in accurately diagnosing your condition and in many cases, it may not be possible to reliably provide advice to the patient without this data.
The benefits of improved access to medical advice are great for the patient, however, it is unlikely that online medical services will replace visits to the local GP surgery anytime soon, as the quality of care still lags behind a real-life consultation!