In a GPonline survey of 162 GP partners, 19% said their practice provided online consultations, up from just 10% of partners who said their practice undertook online consultations in a similar poll a year ago.
However, the latest survey suggests the majority of practices remain sceptical about the value of online consultations. Some 50% of partners said that their practice did not offer the service and was not interested in doing so - compared with 58% of partners who gave this response 12 months ago.
The remaining 31% of partners said that their practice did not offer online consultations but was interested in doing so in the future, compared with 32% a year ago.
Official data on appointments in general practice published by NHS Digital earlier this month revealed that the total number of video or online appointments delivered in England in the year from November 2017 to October 2018 was 1.4m. This represents 0.5% of all appointments in general practice during the period.
In October 2018, the most recent month for which statistics are available, the CCG with the highest proportion of consultations undertaken online or by video was Castle Point and Rochford CCG in Essex, where 7% of all consultations were delivered in this way.
NHS England believes that online consultations will help GP practices tackle growing workload and improve access for patients. In November 2017 it began allocating £45m of GP Forward View funding to CCGs to support the roll-out of online systems.
Practices are not required to undertake online consultations, but NHS England has said it hopes the majority will benefit from the fund over the three-year period it is available. Under NHS England’s programme CCGs procure licenses for systems on behalf of their practices and ongoing funding after the first year depends on evidence of uptake by practices and whether local systems have benefited patients.
Research studies have previously suggested that online GP consultations may increase workload and cost and will only help to improve efficiency if uptake by patients dramatically increases.
GPs responding to GPonline’s poll were divided on the benefits of online consultations, with some finding them useful and others fearing they would open the floodgates to more work.
‘Fantastic, wish we could do more - I’m concerned it will go when central funding goes in two years,’ one GP said. While another found them useful in ‘limited circumstances’.
Another GP said: ‘They don't really save many appointments as approximately half the time we still need to see the patient face to face to examine them.’
‘Improving access creates more workload for GPs. We are focusing too much on patient convenience as opposed to how to effectively run a business with limited resource. Online consultations with GPs are wholly unnecessary,’ one GP replied.
There was also concern about uptake among patients and several GPs said that they might consider introducing the systems, but were simply too busy.
‘Online consultations are very poorly used by our general population, but loved by our students (we also have a university health centre),’ one GP said.
‘As we can't cope at present with face-to-face and telephone consultations there's no way we could consider providing further consultations either online or in any other way,’ another respondent said.
‘I think they have a place but simply cannot be done in addition to the work that we are already doing, so needs time allocated to them and heavy safety-netting,’ said another GP.