Switch GP appointments to phone or digital where possible with 'immediate effect', says Hancock

All GP consultations should be carried out by phone or digitally where possible 'with immediate effect' to improve access during the coronavirus outbreak, the health and social care secretary has said.

Phone consultation (Photo: Martin Prescott/Getty Images)
Phone consultation (Photo: Martin Prescott/Getty Images)

Speaking in the House of Commons, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: 'We are taking steps to improve access to make sure people can access primary care in the best possible way.

'I can be clear to the House today that we will take a digital-first approach to accessing primary care and outpatient appointments so wherever clinically and practically possible people can access and should access primary care through phones and digital means.

'This is especially important in the current coronavirus outbreak - already there is a rollout that has started but we will make this across the country with immediate effect.'

Digital GP consultations

But GP leaders warned that many practices are simply not set up to provide digital consultations - and warned that if there is a plan to speed up access online and via telephone, the government must set out details of how it will work - and crucially, how it will be paid for.

Medico-legal experts said decisions to switch to alternative types of consultation need to be handled on a 'patient by patient basis' - warning that while GMC decisions on any complaints would take into account the 'environment in which the professional is working', doctors would still need to be able to justify a decision to consult remotely.

The comments from the health secretary came as RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall hit out at the government for failing to prioritise general practice in coronavirus planning.

The RCGP chair told the Londonwide LMCs conference on Tuesday that the government had focused too much on hospitals and NHS 111 and not enough on primary care.

Coronavirus outbreak

Meanwhile, GPonline's latest opinion poll found that three quarters of GPs say their practice is not ready to deal with a coronavirus outbreak - with around three in five GPs pointing to a lack of adequate information and guidance.

A total of 373 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK as of 10 March, with six deaths reported.

Wessex LMCs chief executive Dr Nigel Watson told GPonline that many practices did not have the technology in place for digital consultations and that it wasn't simply a case of asking them to 'just switch it on and use it'.

He added that buying in solutions came at a cost, and that although some practices had adopted new technology, only a 'very small proportion' were equipped to deliver video consultations - often because of outdated computers and software and poor-quality broadband.

Switching to phone consultations was also challenging, he warned - although he acknowledged that some patients who were generally reluctant to consult by phone may be more willing given concern over coronavirus.

An MDU spokesperson said: 'A decision would need to be made on a patient by patient basis as it would depend on the individual circumstances and whether, for example, an examination was needed.

'The GMC guidance explains that if a concern is raised "it will be considered on the specific facts of the case, taking into account the factors relevant to the environment in which the professional is working". Nevertheless, doctors need to be able to justify their decisions and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of remote consultations or remote prescribing in each case.'

  • How have you or your practice been affected by coronavirus? Get in touch with GPonline in confidence at gponline@haymarket.com

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