GP practices across the South East are now just a video call away  

Most GP practices in the South East now have the ability to have video appointments with patients, after a programme to introduce the technology was accelerated in response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As part of the Long Term Plan for the NHS, NHS England and NHS Improvement’s Digital First programme was established to make use of technology to provide all patients with access to “digital first primary care”. The rollout of video consultation in response to coronavirus has allowed patients to easily access advice, support and treatment they need using digital and online tools. This means patients can now book and cancel appointments, have a consultation with a healthcare professional, receive a referral and obtain a prescription.

Sarah MacDonald, Director of Primary Care at NHS England and NHS Improvement, South East said:

Safe and secure video appointments are an important way for the NHS to ensure that it is still there for the people that need it during the coronavirus pandemic. As many people are becoming more confident with using video calls to chat with friends and family, this service has really taken off in primary care too. The many benefits for patients in terms of convenience and reduced travel mean that video appointment will continue to be there as an option for them in the future too”

Melissa Ream, Artificial Intelligence Adviser for Kent Surrey Sussex Academic Health Science Network and National AHSN said:

We knew we had to respond to coronavirus rapidly, and very quickly had an understanding of the size of the challenge with how many GP Practices needed support with infrastructure, training, resources and workforce needs, and we were able to address any barriers promptly.

“The number of video appointments has risen each month since the social distancing guidelines across the South East came into effect. Verified baseline data from the beginning of April showed video appointments were available in 89% of GP practices in the South East. As of last week, 99% of practices had video appointment capability. Bringing many different parts of the NHS together across the region, the NHS has delivered an objective planned for 2021 in just a couple of months.”

Video appointment technology helps patients to continue to access general practice services remotely while they are social distancing unless a face-to-face appointment is necessary. Benefits of video appointments include minimising travel, supporting isolated communities and reducing the spread of infection.

Video consultations are just a part of the digital offer available to patients. Patients can also use online consultations to ask questions, report symptoms and upload photos securely online and their GP practice can respond by phone or email or, in some cases, arrange a video consultation if the GP feels it is needed. Across the South East there has been a significant increase in the number of practices able to provide online consultations, rising from 70% of practices on 2 April to 90% by the end of May.

Percentage of GP practices with video appointment and online consultation capability*

System 2 April – percentage of GP Practices with video appointment capability 29 May – percentage of GP Practices with video appointment capability 2 April – percentage of GP Practices with online consultation capability 29 May – percentage of GP Practices with online consultation capability
Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West (BOB) 98% 99% 92% 96%
Surrey Heartlands 98% 100% 41% 84%
Frimley Health 94% 97% 63% 96%
Kent and Medway 80% 98% 47% 94%
Sussex and East Surrey 84% 99% 78% 77%
Hampshire and Isle of Wight 93% 97% 94% 98%
South East Total 89% 99% 70% 90%

Case study – online consultations in Hampshire and Isle of Wight

In Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, thousands more people are now using digital means to access NHS care and advice each month and the ambition is to see that trend continue.

GP practices in the area are using a service called eConsult, which enables them to offer online consultations to patients. Patients can access the simple system from their practice’s website and ask surgery staff about symptoms, conditions or treatment, or request things like sick notes or letters. If they submit their details the practice will respond by phone or email, and can arrange an appointment if required.

In the seven days up to 3 May, there were almost 20,000 unique visitors from the county to the eConsult service, compared to an average of just over 16,200 unique visitors a week in March – a rapid rise of 18%.

And as a result of the rising number of people using the eConsult service, an estimated 6,900 appointments at GP surgeries were ‘saved’ during that same week – people who got the advice or support they needed quickly and remotely, rather than having to physically go into a surgery. By comparison, during March an average of just over 5,200 appointments were ‘saved’ each week – the most recent figures represent a rise of almost one third (24%) in little more than a month.

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant a rapid acceleration in the use of technology to help people remain supported and cared for during restrictions on social movement.

All Hampshire and Isle of Wight practices are now signed up to allow use of the NHS App, and usage amongst patients is climbing strongly. In February there were approximately 4,000 new registrations in the county, rising to more than 6,000 people in March, taking the county total to more than 32,000.

Dr Sunil Rathod, GP and IT Lead in Hampshire said: “eConsult has revolutionised the way patients communicate with their GP practices. Where patients spent time trying to get through on the phone, they can now message their practice at any time of day or night and expect to have their query dealt with within 48 hours, often less.

“We know some of our patients find it difficult to come into the practice or struggle to attend appointments during working hours. They have told us they find this form of communication very helpful. Some practices are also developing a way for carers, relatives and parents to submit queries on behalf of patients which, if the patient has consented, means we can support them to care for their loved one.

“For more and more people it is completely normal to do almost everything online – banking, shopping, booking holidays, keeping in touch with friends and family. So why not use technology to allow people to contact their surgery, get their health questions answered, order their prescription, or make an appointment?

“We know that not everyone is able to use new technology, or doesn’t feel comfortable doing so, and sometimes you really need to meet someone in person. Nobody will ever be disadvantaged if they are not online – that is absolutely fundamental. But we need it to become completely normal for people to contact the NHS via websites, or apps – nobody wants to queue up at a practice or be put on hold, so why not use the technology to help you avoid that if you can?”