‘Virtual’ doctors plan to treat patients online

PATIENTS could be treated online by GPs instead of having face-to-face appointments in a move designed to alleviate growing pressure on the NHS.

Doctors could respond to a questionnaire filled in by a patient with advice or a prescription. Photograph: Getty
Doctors could respond to a questionnaire filled in by a patient with advice or a prescription. Photograph: Getty

The controversial move, which would see traditional appointments replaced with online advice, is a substantial change in the way Scottish patients receive NHS care and treatment.

Some patients will be expected to use the NHS’s website information to look after themselves at home while others will consult their doctor by typing their symptoms into an online questionnaire.

The move could drastically cut the number of patients turning up at doctors’ surgeries and hospital A&E departments at a time of mounting pressure on the NHS.

Those pushing ahead with the scheme compare it to online banking and claim it will “empower” patients to look after themselves.

But critics warn that for some patients, particularly the elderly or those with complex health problems, face-to-face appointments must not be ­replaced.

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “For some patients, this will be a perfectly convenient and acceptable way to access frontline healthcare. But we need to consider for many others it will not be.

“Very many consider a face-to-face appointment the most helpful and comforting way of doing things. It’s important, amid technological advances, we don’t lose patient-doctor contact.”

The “econsulting” scheme, will target patients with common conditions such as coughs, headaches, sore throats and depression.

GP surgeries taking part would promote their “virtual general practice” service on their websites.

Patients could click through links on the website which either give them more information on how to look after themselves, or give them the option to fill in a questionnaire – detailing their symptoms.

Surgery staff, such as doctors and nurses, would respond to the questionnaire and either offer advice or provide a prescription.

Doctors surgeries across Scotland are planning to take part in the new scheme. One of the first is Nairn Healthcare Group, Highland, which is in talks with experts from the Hurley Group, a London practice which pioneered the move.

Yesterday a spokeswoman for NHS Highland said: “Nairn Healthcare Group, along with NHS24 and the Hurley Group, are looking at ways in which we can use technology to support patients without them having to attend the practice. This is very much an early discussion at the moment and it is too early to talk about ­specifics.”

Dr Arvind Madan, chief executive of the Hurley Group, said:“Econsulting can be done from home, work or on the bus. The idea is to start pilots in Scotland.”

Labour’s health spokeswoman, Jenny Marra MSP, said: “We must bring new technologies into our health service to improve care, but patients must always be able to get a guaranteed face-to-face appointment with their GP.”