Study casts shadow on current state of online consultation systems in primary care

Experts from the University of Bristol looked at the use of a system deployed across 36 practices in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

[London, UK] New research from the University of Bristol suggests online GP consultation systems have to be ‘carefully implemented and effectively marketed’ to provide the efficiency savings and reductions in patient waiting times needed.

The new study, which looked at a system called eConsult, casts a shadow on the £45m fund NHS England is offering to help GP practices deploy e-consultation platforms.

Findings of the eConsult system evaluation, trialled across 36 practices in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, revealed use of the system was low, with an average of two consultations taking place per month for every 1,000 patients.

Almost 40% of e-consultations led to a face-to-face follow-up appointment with a GP and approximately 60% of patients scheduled e-consultations from Monday to Wednesday, with numbers dropping sharply to around 12% during the weekend.

However, patients said they ‘valued’ having the option to use the system in addition to existing GP services, although most of them used it for administrative reasons.

The authors also noted the system’s lack of interoperability with existing IT platforms that posed additional challenges by duplicating the workload of staff at times.

Dr John Heather, Chair of the One Care GP led-organisation, said online consultations can address sustainability issues in the primary care field, adding: "The findings from this research can influence implementation guidelines for garnering the opportunity presented by e-consultations to enable general practice to survive and thrive.”

Murray Ellender, Chief Executive of eConsult, said online consultations ‘have evolved a long way since this study was carried out’.

Research from the University of Cambridge published earlier this year looking at statistics from 150 practices across the country using the ‘telephone first’ scheme against a 10% random sample of other surgeries revealed it led to a 12-fold increase in phone consultations for the average practice.

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