Virtual Group Clinics (VGCs) in Primary Care

Background to learning

During the pandemic significant progress has been made on offering virtual alternatives to face-to-face contact.  This has helped minimise transmission of infection and is an approach welcomed by patients.  Where it is more appropriate, uptake of virtual alternates has made face-to-face easier contact to provide.

Group consultations have long been considered a valuable tool for maintaining health for groups of patients such as those living with a long-term condition. A national programme has been exploring the use of virtual group clinics, and, during the pandemic, nurses at participating practices have driven an expansion of virtual consultations to offer a safe way to continue to support their patients.

Learning and advice to be shared

Initial feedback from the programme indicates that the virtual group clinic offers comparable benefits to real- world group consultations. Especially within a Covid-19 context, where mixing households in real world group clinics has not been an option.

The virtual group clinic model being adopted in practices is allowing a variety of health professionals, leading clinics, to spend longer with patients whilst seeing more patients. As practice teams begin to master VGC methods, they report that they save time compared to one to one video with nurses and other clinicians and are able to review up to eight times as many people in an hour of clinic time.

Nurses have led virtual group clinics for people with long-term conditions such as diabetes.  Across the programme there are examples practice nurses and other health professionals:

  • Delivering education webinars for example giving advice diet/lifestyle
  • Successfully using group clinics to deliver many components of annual health reviews such as checking in with patients on how they are maintaining blood glucose targets.

VGCs do not replace face-to-face care but are a useful complementary approach for patients.  However, many of these patients value the opportunity of facilitated peer support, spending more time with their clinician and making connections with others who share their condition.

Delivering VGCs as a new way of working has been identified as beneficial in supporting development of remote consulting skills and promote multi-professional team working, drawing in specialists and other professions, as necessary to support patients.  VGCs will typically involve practice administrators, technical support working alongside nurses and other professionals to make sure that the session runs smoothly and provides a good experience for patients.

Would it be beneficial to retain these changes?

Beyond health and care the trend towards online digital delivery of services has accelerated.  The benefits of virtual clinics have been highlighted through the pandemic and there is system-wide determination to ensure that ‘virtual’ remains a routine part of care provision. For as long as there is Covid-19 in the community virtual alternatives will be vital.

Many of those that have suffered from Covid-19 will face a long and complex recovery. Additionally, during a pandemic long term condition management continues to place additional demands on community services.  Virtual delivery of group clinics could provide a valuable tool to support these patients.