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'Email your GP' pilots get underway

By Steve Nowottny

GPs have started offering direct email access to patients in a project NHS managers believe will dramatically slash the number of face-to-face consultations.

Stanmore Medical Centre in Harrow, north west London, this month became the first practice in the country to start piloting HealthSpace Communicator, a secure NHS website which allows patients to consult directly with their GP.

Access to the website is being extended to other practices in Harrow and will be piloted in a number of different primary care settings across the country over the coming months, ahead of a national rollout.

HealthSpace Communicator will allow GPs to conduct a range of consultations not requiring face-to-face contact, such as the management of patients with long-term conditions, repeat prescription requests and to triage demand for appointments.

And Connecting for Health bosses believe it could significantly cut demand for GP appointments, after a fact finding trip in America suggested large numbers of patients were willing to email their GP instead.

US healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, which now has more than 12,000 doctors using email and has seen patients send more than five million messages, said the service had been popular with both clinicians and patients – despite a notable decline in face-to-face consultations.

A survey of patients using the service found that if email had not been available, 52% of patients would have called their surgery and 28% would have attended in person.

Kaiser Permanente also reported that concerns over patients deluging doctors with irrelevant queries were largely unfounded – 66% of patient-initiated emails required clinical assessment or decisions, while 25% required clinical actions.

The NHS Care Records Service National Clinical Reference Panel received the findings enthusiastically, concluding in a recent meeting that ‘from a commissioning point of view, Communicator could be very positive as it will cut down the number of patient appointments and the DNA rate.'

Marlene Winfield, Director for Patients and Public at Connecting for Health, said that Kaiser Permanente had found that the service had been popular with both clinicians and patients, despite the decline in face-to-face consultations.

‘Although it reduced the number of visits and the number of phone calls, people still felt equally touched by their healthcare provider,' she said.

But GPs gave a mixed reaction.

Dr Grant Ingrams, chair of the GPC's IT subcommittee, said: ‘Kaiser Permanente is working where there is no universal primary care, and therefore any access is better than nothing.'

Remote consultations were harder to conduct and would be appropriate only for a very limited number of reasons, he added. ‘The gold standard is face to face.'

Dr Zara Aziz, a GP in Bristol, said she had found using emails for repeat medication requests at a previous practice worked well – but warned GPs remained concerned about confidentiality implications.

‘The thing with email accounts is that sometimes you get people reading other people's,' she said.

'Email your GP' pilots are now underway 'Email your GP' pilots are now underway

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