15 September 2021 | OPINION

As we cautiously begin to exit the pandemic, Sajid Javid is pushing GPs to return to face-to-face consultations – but there are some benefits to online and over-the-phone medical appointments.

The pandemic has overseen unprecedented changes in public health, and when it comes to primary care, the delivery of these services has had to change both drastically and rapidly.

Before the pandemic, all patient appointments for GP surgeries were held face-to-face, bar some that were already beginning to host consultations over the phone.

Despite the horror and swift change that this coronavirus pandemic has overseen in healthcare, have there been some benefits to the changes in delivery of primary care services? Almost certainly.

Essentially, this comes down to time and money efficiency – and perhaps the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid (having survived today’s Cabinet reshuffle), should examine this before rushing to argue for a complete return to face-to-face consultations.

To be clear, this is not a criticism of Javid, but merely an argument pointing out that, as the Government has emphasised so often throughout the pandemic, the worry of “overwhelming” NHS services, with not only Covid-related treatments and ailments, but the backlog of other illnesses and the like that have had to be put on hold as we prioritised the pandemic.

From both a pragmatic and political perspective, it should serve the Government well not to rush into calling for a total return to face-to-face consultations. Why? Because, as mentioned previously, of time and money savings – which bring with them better practicality.

Why should it serve as beneficial to patients and GP practices to hold medical consultations on-site for what could be five-minute appointments? Regular check-ups, urgent worries (which may or may not be of legitimate medical concern) and even general appointments made for issues being addressed for the first time; these few scenarios are examples of where face-to-face appointments would or could prove unnecessary – and even a waste of time, should some of these concerns be unwarranted.

Several months ago, I spoke with Dr Rachel Barrass-Stones – a senior partner at Ringwood Medical Practice, Hampshire – who argued that there are significant benefits to over-the-phone or video call consultations – and not just as regards the time saved, but also the time of day.

She gave one example of a patient she treated: a worried mother who was concerned about a sudden rash that appeared on her young son late one night, outside of normal opening hours. Instead of waiting until the next morning – if the mother had even been lucky enough to arrange an appointment so quickly – Dr Barrass-Stones was able to arrange a quick video call consultation, and the issue was resolved. This clearly proved to be practical for both the GP and the patient, and demonstrated that a significant amount of time had been saved. She said the appointment only lasted for five minutes or so – therefore it would have been totally unnecessary, for both the GP and the patient, to arrange a face-to-face appointment.

Furthermore, whilst it would be absurd to argue that all appointments, or even the majority of them, should not be treated face-to-face, there is in practice little reason why some consultations could not be run online or over the phone. After all, these can be beneficial to primary care services and the patients who use them – as well as, ultimately, the British taxpayer. Whilst, understandably, there are some issues that must be addressed face-to-face, such as pensioners getting their dressings changed, there are also others, like dermatological concerns, that can be addressed via video consultation at the hands (metaphorically, of course) of a medical professional.

Perhaps, therefore, as the Government continues to emphasise the importance of not “overwhelming” the NHS, particularly as we head towards winter, it should consider sticking to online and over-the-phone appointments if it means relieving the burden on the shoulders of our health services – especially as we approach the final push out of the pandemic – and if it also serves the more practical purpose of being more efficient in terms of both time and money.

William is a political commentator and journalism student. His writing focuses on politics, society and culture in Britain.

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