DEBATE: Should GPs continue virtual appointments post-pandemic?

DEBATE: Should GPs continue virtual appointments post-pandemic?

Dr Murray Ellender, a practicing GP and CEO of digital triage company eConsult says Yes:

In a country with a chronic shortage of GPs, not everyone that wants an in-person appointment will get one. Even before Covid, only people with the fastest finger in the morning phone lottery would get a slot with their doctor: hardly the most scientific way of prioritising patients. This is where virtual appointments – both online triage and video consultations – can add real value.

Online triage tools that enable patients to go to their practice website, enter their symptoms and receive a response from their GP have played a key role in helping surgeries decide who needs an in-person appointment and who can be assisted virtually. This will continue after the pandemic, and rightly so.

Video appointments will no longer be the default option for GPs after Covid. As a practising GP, I know most of us prefer to see a patient in the flesh rather than through our laptop. However, virtual appointment should continue to be a mainstay in our primary healthcare system.

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Georgia L. Gilholy, a Young Voices UK contributor, says No:

It is the job of GPs to serve the medical needs of their community as best they can. In most cases, this is a job that simply cannot be done virtually. Most GPs themselves agree with this assessment. Indeed, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners Professor Martin Marshall admitted that remote consultations felt like working “in a call centre” and risked damaging the personal relationship between GPs and their patients.

In November, the British Heart Foundation found that up to 5,000 more people have died from heart problems in England than would be expected since the start of the pandemic. We are already seeing equally troubling figures emerge regarding other health conditions too. There is a concrete link between this spike in deaths and people’s aversion or inability to attend GP appointments, which declined by around 8 million during the first lockdown. Crucial early symptoms otherwise dismissed by patients can be easily missed online.

Healthcare should, of course, be streamlined where possible. Allowing phone and online consultations “where patients benefit from them” is welcomed. But it is vital that patients have the same access to face-to-face appointments they would have had prior to the pandemic.