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Is it time for GPs to embrace technology to reduce waiting times and wasted appointments?

cancer on the rise

The average waiting time for patients wishing to see their GP has increased in recent years, perhaps thanks to an ageing population and shortage of general practitioners. In fact, according to a study by Pulse, the average waiting time for one in four practices in the UK is now two weeks.

With technology developing at a rapid pace and a growing number of people embracing social media and smartphone apps, could it be time for GPs to embrace technology within their surgeries to reduce waiting times?

Preventing wasted appointments

Each week, more than a quarter of a million appointments go to waste in England alone. The NHS Alliance and the Primary Care Foundation recently revealed that 27% of appointments could be freed up with the help of better use of technology.  

With the help of a sophisticated smartphone app, patients may be more likely to cancel appointments that they’re unable to attend rather than simply not showing up. Those in need of an appointment on short notice could then check their smartphone app for available appointments nearby.

Symptom checkers

Not only could apps and digital tools help minimise wasted appointments, they could also be used to assess which health services are most suitable for a patient depending on their symptoms.

eConsult is one such tool that enables patients to consult a symptom checker to determine whether they need an appointment with their GP, self-help information, a pharmacist, or another health service. The tool was trialled in 20 practices over a period of six months and is said to have had a positive effect on services. In 60% of cases, patients found they were able to resolve their health concerns without the need for a GP appointment.

However, symptom checkers have been criticised by some who argue that some life threatening conditions could be confused with less serious illnesses due to similar symptoms. The rash caused by meningitis, for example, could be mistaken for dermatitis.

Some medical professionals believe online portals are ineffective in diagnosing illnesses and identifying the correct treatments. Dr Hamed Khan, an emergency department doctors warns: “I’m worried patients will potentially miss very serious illnesses like meningitis – which could have fatal consequences.”

Video consultations

In 2014, Moss Side Medical Practice in Manchester introduced a scheme which offered patients telephone and video consultations and found this approach helped to reduce the need for face-to-face appointments.

Leading GP, Sir Sam Everington recently argued that video consultations should be embraced as a method of communicating with patients. He said: “Skype appointments are the stethoscopes of modern medicine and should become the norm.”

It seems patients are open to the idea of video calls too. In 2013, NHS Local surveyed members of the public and 52% of respondents said they’d be open to speaking with the GP via video rather than visiting the surgery. In fact, 14% said they’d be more likely to discuss sensitive issues this way.

With many patients having to take time out of work or school to visit their GP, it’s no surprise that some individuals are in favour of more flexible methods of communication.