Patients with access to an online consultation tool available 24/7 were most likely to make enquiries at times of day that have traditionally been busiest for GPs, researchers at the University of Warwick found.
The researchers looked at data from more than 5,000 patients at nine GP practices that use the 'askmyGP' system over a 10-week period. Levels of use peaked between 8am and 10am on weekdays and 8pm and 10pm at weekends, the study published in the British Journal of General Practice found.
However, despite the finding that patients use online consultations at the same times and for similar types of problems to traditional consultations, the researchers said that many patients found the model more convenient. Younger patients were most likely to use the tools and at practices struggling to provide prompt access, online consultations were particularly welcomed by patients.
Study author Dr Helen Atherton, from Warwick Medical School, said: 'With online platforms there is an assumption that having a 24/7 ability to make contact with a general practice will cater to those who wish to deal with their health problem at a convenient time, often when the practice is shut, and that being online means they will perhaps share different problems than they would over the telephone or face-to-face.
'In reality, patients were seeking access to healthcare at the same times and for the same sort of problems that they did using traditional routes. This suggests that patients’ consulting behaviour will not be easily changed by introducing online platforms. Therefore practices should be clear as to exactly why they are introducing these online platforms, and what they want to achieve for themselves and their patients in doing so – the expectation may well not meet reality.'
The study found that 'targeting services at younger patients and those with general administrative enquiries could be most effective'.
The study - the first independent evaluation of a major provider of online consultation platforms in NHS general practice - looked at the types of patients using online triage systems, how and when they use it and satisfaction with the model.
Patient feedback assessed by the research team showed that many said it was convenient and allowed them to describe their symptoms fully, but others were less satisfied. Views tended to vary according to the type of condition patients were reporting, and ease of access to GP services normally at their practice.
Two thirds of users were female and almost a quarter were aged between 25 and 34, with enquiries about medication, administrative requests and reporting specific symptoms the top reasons for using the service. Skin conditions, ear nose and throat queries and musculoskeletal problems topped the list of specific problems reported.
Dr Atherton said: 'Online consultation is not going to be suitable for all patients and all conditions and one approach is unlikely to work for everyone.
'Practices could focus on encouraging people to deal with administrative issues using the platform to free up phone lines for other patients. It could be promoted specifically to younger patients, or those who prefer to write about their problems and not to use the telephone. Clear information for patients and a better understanding of their needs is required to capture the potential benefits of this technology.'