Most practices in England do not want to provide online consultations

More than half of practices in England have no interest in providing online consultations, despite NHS England ploughing £45m of funding into the initiative as part of the GP Forward View, a GPonline poll suggests.

In the survey of 231 GP partners, 58% said that their practice did not currently offer online consultations and was not interested in doing so.

Some 10% of partners said that their practice already provided the service to patients. The remaining 32% said that their practice did not currently provide online consultations, but was interested in doing so in the future.

NHS England began the process of allocating the £45m of funding for online consultations to CCGs in November last year. 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.

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NHS England has heavily backed the idea of online consultations as a way of helping GP practices to tackle growing workload and improving access for patients. ‘New consultation types’, including online consultations, are one of its 10 High Impact Actions that are aiming to free up GP time to deliver more patient care.

Last year, NHS England’s head of primary care development Dr Robert Varnam said that some practices were freeing up around an hour of their GPs' time each day through using the systems

However, many of the GPs responding to GPonline’s poll were sceptical about claims that consulting online would cut GP workload, with a number fearing it would lead to increased demand. Several GPs already using online consultation systems said that they had, in fact, increased workload.

Recent studies have suggested that online GP consultations may increase workload and cost and will only help to improve efficiency if uptake by patients dramatically increases.

Medico-legal risks

Other GPs responding to the poll were concerned about the medico-legal risks associated with online consultations, with several claiming they were potentially 'dangerous'.

One GP said: 'In an ideal world this could be a positive, but even with funding this is an additional service, when are we supposed to fit this in? I think it is very unlikely to decrease workload or consultations as it will increase access for the worried well.'

Another said: 'They are dangerous for all but simplest requests.'

A GP whose practice currently provides online consultations said: 'We will be looking to withdraw from the service as it has increased, rather than decreased, our workload.'

Another GP using online consultations added: 'They increase the workload as these patients nearly always need a phone consultation or a face-to-face appointment.'

However some GPs were more positive about the possible benefits. One said that they provided 'better access for patients – it's not exactly time saving but it does make triage easier.'

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