It was only a matter of time, but it’s now possible to book a GP appointment via an app, seeing an NHS GP face-to-phone via a video consultation within two hours. Given the fortnightly waits that some of us endure for a ten minute surgery appointment, this would appear to be quite the revolution in healthcare. It’s currently only available as a pilot scheme to 3.5 million patients in west London, but if successful, it could be rolled out across the rest of the UK.
The ‘GP at Hand’ initiative is being spearheaded by Babylon, a private technology business that already offers a “virtual GP” service to paying customers, in partnership with an NHS GP surgery in Fulham. Patients input their symptoms into an in-app ‘symptom checker’, which reportedly deals with up to 40 per cent of enquiries alone, allowing GPs to quickly prioritise more serious ailments (apparently only a fifth of GP appointments strictly require the presence of a doctor). Once you’ve booked your appointment and been seen by a GP, you can pick up a prescription, if relevant, at a chemist that suits you. It’s thought that the service will not only save patients and businesses time and money, with less time taken off work for medical appointments, but also free up GPs’ time and reduce unnecessary paperwork. As for costs, surgeries will be paid a certain rate for each patient registered with the GP at Hand service, which is then sub-contracted to Babylon, so technically there is no extra expense involved. So far, so techy and impressive, but as with any app that tries to solve our greatest health and lifestyle dilemmas, there’s a hitch, and it’s far from a cure-all for the health service.
First off, there’s rather a long list of patients for whom this service would not be suitable, from pregnancy to dementia to mental health issues. Complex cases will still need to be dealt with in-person, while patient security and confidentiality could be put at risk by a ‘two tier’ health system, not to mention the admin involved if patients aren’t content with the service offered by the app, thus wish to switch back to their local surgery. Chair of the Royal College of GPS Helen-Stokes Lampard explains why the GP at Hand service isn’t necessarily the panacea that the NHS needs in both patient wellbeing and economical terms:
“While this scheme is backed by the NHS and offers a free service to patients, it is undoubtedly luring GPs away from front-line general practice at a time when we are facing a severe workforce crisis and hardworking GPs are struggling to cope with immense workloads."
The promise of seeing a GP before your mid-morning coffee is without doubt appealing for the majority of generally healthy and time-pressed patients, particularly seeing as the service is 24 hour, but as most of us appreciate, technology doesn’t always streamline our lives in the way we hope it will (anyone who’s followed the instructions of a rogue sat nav will identify). A careful blend of tech and good old-fashioned face-to-face is likely the way forward, along with some serious upgrades in NHS tech support considering the trials of this new smartphone service and the disabling WannaCry cyber attack earlier this year.