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Patients to be offered email consultations with GPs

By Steve Nowottny

Exclusive: The Government is to offer patients email consultations with GPs in the next stage of its drive to improve access to primary care, Pulse can reveal.

Patients will be able to directly email their GP through a new ‘Communicator' tool as part of Healthspace, the secure personal health organiser website originally set up to allow patients to view their Summary Care Record online.

Connecting for Health, which is developing the programme, expects it to be used for consultations not requiring face-to-face contact. The system could be used for management of patients with long-term conditions, repeat prescription requests and to triage demand for appointments.

Pilots will begin in practices in April, with the tool to be ‘widely available' by the end of next year.

The plans follow calls from the King's Fund last month for GPs to offer online consultations as part of the huge expansion in use of technology in the NHS.

Dr Gillian Braunold, clinical director for the Summary Care Record and Healthspace and a GP in north London, said: ‘For GPs, there is a lot of potential benefit. They might want to do QOF work by email, rather than bringing patients in. So for an asthma medication review, you've got a secure online environment if there are a few questions you want to ask.'

Dr Braunold insisted using Communicator would be voluntary – with patients and GPs using Facebook-style technology to ‘form a relationship' before sending emails – but would not be incentivised. ‘If patients and clinicians – not just GPs – wish to use it, they will do so,' she said. ‘There is no coercion.'

The proposals received a mixed response from GPs, with some warning patients would demand their practice offered it once it had been advertised nationally.

Dr Trevor Stammers, a GP in Wimbledon, south London, said: ‘My doctor's inbox regularly has 30 to 50 emails each day. The thought of having batches of these from patients fills me with that sinking feeling.'

Others raised fears over the medicolegal implications.

Dr Andrew Mimnagh, chair of Sefton LMC, said: ‘I would hate to find a "Dear Dr Mimnagh, I have crushing chest pain, what should I do?" email three days later.

‘The spectre of mass forwarding of "Dear Mr Jones, your penile discharge may indeed be a sign of some condition needing treatment" should also be borne in mind.'

Dr Stephanie Bown, director of communications at the Medical Protection Society, said email consultations should only be used in limited cases where other information was also available. ‘The best way of communicating with a patient is when they're sitting in front of you because you can see them, read their body language and hear their voice,' she said.

But Dr Gurmit Mahay, secretary of Wolverhampton LMC, backed the plan.

He said: ‘It would enable access at flexible times for patients and free doctors up to see those patients face to face who have a red-flag symptom, or who need a physical exam in the doctor's, not the patient's, estimation.'

Dr Gillian Braunold: GPs might be able to do QOF work by email rather than see patients face to face Dr Gillian Braunold: GPs might be able to do QOF work by email Patients to be offered email consultations with GPs

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