With GP waiting times now up to 13 days, is a digital doctor a safe alternative to a face-to-face appointment?

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It was once considered a minefield of medical advice, more likely to spread confusion than to improve health. Yet the internet is coming into its own as more of us than ever turn to technology to manage our health than ever before. With the NHS in turmoil and with waiting times for a GP appointment now as long as 13 days, we are turning to alternative means of seeking medical services. And that means consulting your smartphone, iPad or laptop for a quick fix. Recent statistics show that the number of searches for health and medical issues in the UK rose by almost one fifth in 12 months to an average 848,820 searches a month.

Our thirst for ‘on demand’ healthcare information has triggered a huge trend for reputable online medical companies and apps that offer everything from video consultations with registered GPs to private GP booking services. Indeed, the latest research by one such ‘digital doctor’ service,  PushDoctor , suggests 62 per cent of Britons have dabbled with technology to order repeat prescriptions, to have an online chat with a doctor or to access their medical records. Of the 1,014 adults questioned, almost one in three (30 per cent) said they’d consult a GP via video if it meant they could have an appointment when and where they wanted. Surveys suggest that the 18-44 age group is driving the online medical trend. “People have busy lives and our service is designed to be consumer friendly,” says Eren Ozagir, the founder of PushDoctor. “It’s more like an online shopping site and we get as many men using it as women.”

Admittedly, I’m one of those who wouldn’t even have considered booking an online appointment until recently when friends started gushing about the speed and efficiency of such services. Part of my reluctance was apprehension: were they ‘real’ doctors or bogus practitioners distributing dodgy advice? But now I might be tempted. Standards, it seems, have soared in response to demand and far from replacing struggling NHS, many of the virtual doctors work alongside it with an increasing number of GPs recommending some of the services. PushDoctor has a network of almost 7,000 doctors, all of whom work in the NHS and are registered with the General Medical Council while Patient.Info offers the same symptom checkers and drug information used by surgeries and is often recommended as a reliable source of reference by GPs.

Dr Gerry Morrow, a GP who is medical director of Clarity Informatics, the parent company behind  Prodigy Patient  which describes itself as “the app to consult when you are feeling unwell” and which has professional approval from many GPs, says digital diagnoses appeals to everyone from “new parents, anxious parents and people with a new diagnosis to those with limited time and those who are embarrassed about a particular health issue”. What really appeals is the ease of it all - if you own a smartphone, you practically have a doctor in your pocket, there to tend to your every health worry or medical concern. Advice is available on tap and appointment engines such as  Doctify  even let you locate a private GP, who will see you as soon as you like.

None of it, of course, comes for free. Costs range from a subscription of around £7.99 per month for apps such as Babylon Health , that promises to put you in contact with “some of the best doctors and therapists in the country within minutes” and gives patients access to doctors for 12 hours a day and six days a week, whilst PushDoctor has a new offer of £1 for an initial consultation followed by £14 per consultation thereafter. Prescriptions are generally extra, costing £4.50 with PushDoctor, and are sent by email or post. It’s a price more of us are willing to pay, says Dr Morrow. “People will continue to use technology to monitor their health - this is a trend that will not go away anytime soon,” she says. “They can now get safe, trustworthy sources of information from the technology they use.”

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