RCGP warns GPs and patients over safety of online services

GPs and patients have been warned to think carefully about signing up for online health services, in RCGP guidance that highlights ongoing safety concerns around some providers.

RCGP headquarters, Euston
RCGP headquarters, Euston

Guidance published by the college sets out questions for patients to ask when considering signing up for an online provider of general practice, and for GPs, practices and commissioners to ask when considering working for or adopting online services.

The guidance follows a recent warning from the CQC that almost half of online providers of non-NHS GP services are unsafe.

It also comes after a warning that the introduction of the GP at Hand video consultation service on the NHS via a GP practice in London has left the local CCG facing a potential £10m deficit and that other practices in the area could be destabilised.

RCGP advice

Patients are urged to consider factors including whether the service is free or requires a fee, how a physical examination, prescription or home visit can be provided if needed, whether providers have been assessed by the CQC and whether doctors working for the service have access to patient records.

GPs considering working for an online provider should consider issues such as whether they can offer care as safely through the online service as they can face-to-face - and if not, how this risk is mitigated.

They should also consider how referrals will work, whether patient confidentiality is secure, whether indemnity is paid for, and whether online providers will support them as needed with revalidation and appraisal, and peer support.

Advice for CCGs urges them to consider how sustainability of existing services will be affected.

RCGP vice chair Professor Martin Marshall said: 'Technology is being used more and more in every aspect of our lives and general practice has always been a trailblazer in this respect.

GP access

'Online consultations can seem like a very convenient option for accessing general practice services, particularly for young, generally healthy people who want to see a GP quickly.

'But the ways some online services are provided raise patient safety concerns - people need to be aware of these, and properly understand what they are signing up to. Often, for example, patients will have consultations with unfamiliar GPs who don’t have access to their full patient records.

'The college recognises that online consultations can be beneficial for patients, and indeed many practices across the country are already implementing in some form. However, we want to ensure that they are being implemented in a way that is safe for patients, and alleviates pressures in general practice and across the NHS. We also think that online consultations should be provided in addition to traditional services, not instead of them.

'We hope this guidance will help everyone – patients, GPs, practice team members and commissioners - gain a better insight into online consultations, and, most importantly, help equip them with the information they need, so that patients are receiving high-quality, safe care, whichever way they choose to receive it.'

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