Sophie Park is Professor of Primary Care and Medical Education at University College London. Yathavan Premadasan is Medical Student, University College London, and Chris Salisbury is Professor of Primary Health Care, University of Bristol.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed Primary Care dramatically1, with most consultations conducted remotely by telephone, video or online messaging. But is this a short-term adjustment or the future norm? In General Practice, clinical care has been based on long term face-to-face contact, establishing trusting relationships through continuity of care, and using knowledge of patients’ personal circumstances and social context to provide holistic support. Now, these fundamental principles are challenged.
Matt Hancock (UK Health Secretary) has welcomed rapid changes towards digitalised clinical practice as an overdue development, stating that wherever possible, all future consultations should be conducted remotely2. But is the pandemic ‘crisis’ simply being used to introduce unscrutinised change? The WHO recently considered the opportunities and challenges of digitalising healthcare systems3 to address global healthcare workforce shortages and support delivery of universal healthcare, interprofessional working and patient engagement. The report also highlighted potential challenges to equality and social justice posed by private companies keen to exploit the healthcare “market”.
Accessing healthcare through digital services initially seems cheap and even democratizing - what could be easier than emailing your GP? But the reality can be very different. It potentially undermines core primary care principles: the importance of patient interaction; treatment of the whole patient; and situated use of evidence to individualise care, for example negotiating competing priorities in the context of multimorbidity. Worse, it widens health inequality: the healthy, the wealthy and those requiring simple transactional interactions benefit; whilst those with complex health problems struggle to get the care they need.
Remote digital consultations work well for simple transactions4, for example, where a straightforward problem leads to a clear-cut disease diagnosis and treatment. But the main users of Primary Care are young children, the elderly, and those with multiple problems associated with long-term health and social conditions. Telephone and video provide less rich information than face-to-face consultations, making management of these complex situations difficult(4). The move towards remote consultations is a shift towards less personal and more transactional healthcare and away from an individualised, whole-person approach built on a patient-doctor relationship. Using an online form or telephone consultation means problems risk becoming over-simplified, over-investigated, medicalised and stripped of context and nuance. There is less opportunity for in-depth exploration of patients’ concerns and health beliefs, or for shared decision-making.
Studies in different countries have consistently shown that patients choosing remote consultations are predominantly young adults who are healthier, more educated and more affluent than average5,6. These are the opposite of the characteristics associated with health need. Older, less educated patients and those with chronic illness are motivated to access digital healthcare, but face more difficulties in doing so because of lack of access to technology, the confidence and skills to use it, or physical or cognitive limitations7. This should be no surprise to those looking at the “digital divide” in other sectors. For example, over 1 million Lloyds Bank customers (16%) required help to access internet and digital services; moving universal credit on-line increased claimants’ use of Citizens Advice; and, it is the over-75s who comprise most internet non-users8.
Digitalised access to healthcare does not therefore equate to equitable access, nor does it necessarily reduce professional workload9. Digital access can increase demand, as a ‘quick and convenient’ patient option(6) and can increase the need for follow-up10.
These changes impact how primary care is perceived. For patients, those with simple health needs may appreciate the convenience of remote consulting but those with important personal issues to discuss may resent barriers to seeing a doctor in person. For GPs, it can undermine their sense of purpose and identity10: many doctors choose to work in primary care because they want to offer high-quality, holistic care to a patient they know. If a large proportion of their day is spent emailing or telephoning unfamiliar patients, it degrades both the quality of care and satisfaction in their work. Doubtless it will influence career choices of future doctors.
Short-term, we need to make patient care during the pandemic safe. This requires dynamic and personalised risk-assessments with patients to ensure that face-to-face contact is only used when clinically needed, and in the patients’ overall best interests. While more remote consultations are needed, teams can maximise collaborative learning about how best to conduct and utilise digital patient interactions. However, we should resist normalising remote-first healthcare in the longer-term. Remote consultations offer advantages in specific situations. ‘Digital First’ interactions remain, however, problematic for many patient groups and long-term strategies need to retain agile, flexible and human-centred services, enabling patient choice about access and quality of care.
- Webster P. Virtual health care in the era of COVID-19. Lancet. 2020;395(10231):1180-81. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30818-7
- 'More Zoom medicine needed' in NHS says Hancock: BBC; 2020 [Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53592678 accessed 28/08/2020.
- ‘Future of Digital Health Systems: Report on the WHO Symposium on the Future of Digital Health Systems in the European Region’. Copenhagen, Denmark 6-8th February 2019. World Health Organisation (Regional Office for Europe).
- Hammersley V, Donaghy E, Parker R, et al. Comparing the content and quality of video, telephone, and face-to-face consultations: a non-randomised, quasiexperimental, exploratory study in UK primary care. Br J Gen Pract 2019;69(686):e595-e604. doi: 10.3399/bjgp19X704573
- Rodgers M, Raine G, Thomas S, et al. Informing NHS policy in 'digital-first primary care': a rapid evidence synthesis. Health Services and Delivery Research 2019;7(41) doi: 10.3310/hsdr07410
- Pearl R. Kaiser Permanente Northern California: current experiences with internet mobile, and video technologies. Health Aff (Millwood) 2014;33(2):251-7. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2013.1005
- Nijland N, van Gemert-Pijnen JEWC, Boer H, et al. Increasing the use of econsultation in primary care: Results of an online survey among non-users of econsultation. Int J Med Inf 2009;78(10):688-703. doi: 10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2009.06.002
- Elahi F. Digital Inclusion: Bridging Divides: Cumberland Lodge; 2020 [Available from: https://www.cumberlandlodge.ac.uk/read-watch-listen/digital-inclusion-bridgingdivides-cumberland-lodge-report accessed 28/08/2020.
- Salisbury C, Murphy M, Duncan P. The Impact of Digital-First Consultations on Workload in General Practice: Modeling Study. Journal of medical Internet research 2020;22(6):e18203. doi: 10.2196/18203
- Atherton H, Brant H, Ziebland S, et al. The potential of alternatives to face-to-face consultation in general practice, and the impact on different patient groups: a mixed methods case study. Health Services and Delivery Research 2018;6(20) doi: 10.3310/hsdr06200
All authors contributed to the conception and design of this blog, and YP undertook
searches of relevant literature. SP and CS drafted the manuscript and YP commented on
and approved it.
We would like to thank Tanya Cohen, an ‘expert by experience’ who supports undergraduate
medical student teaching at University College London. She commented on this article and
described her concerns about the thoroughness of telephone consultations and about
inequalities of access to technology.
CS has received a grant from the National Institute for Health Research to study remote
consultations. The authors declare no other competing