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GP practices could ‘go under’ if inundated with e-consultations, BMA warns

The BMA has warned that GP practices risk ‘going under’ if they take on email consultations without considering the practice’s capacity.

Speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event, BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said that some practices have taken on new technology ‘wholesale’, only to face deregistration after being unable to cope with the ensuing demand.

This comes after it was revealed that 39 CCGs purchased a tool for e-consultations last year under NHS England’s £45m fund.

The e-consultation tools, such as eConsult and Wiggly Amps’ Engage Consult tool, rely on symptom checkers and online forms, which patients submit to their GP electronically.

However, Dr Vautrey said: ‘There are some practices that have really gone down this route wholesale, invited email consultations and all sorts of activity and have gone under as a result of that because they’ve been absolutely snowed under.

‘They’ve opened the gates and all of a sudden, they cannot cope and it’s ended up being quite dangerous because they’ve got so behind in responses that patients have not been able to get timely answers.’

He added that general practice has ‘to be really careful that we’ve got the right capacity in place’ before undertaking these new initiatives.

Speaking to Pulse, Dr Vautrey said he did not have a figure on the number of affected practices but said: ‘I’ve heard of GPs responding to emails from their patients on a Sunday evening while they’re watching Downton Abbey because they got so behind.’ 

He added that these practices have ‘gone from high-performing practices to one that the CQC had to re-evaluate’.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard added that while ‘there is an unmet [patient] need out there… the big fear is the supply-induced demand’.

She said: ‘When you provide new wizzy stuff, people who would look at their mole and go “shall I or shan’t I [see my GP]” definitely will if it’s very, very easy.

‘That’s a real challenge for us to grapple with because it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it but it does mean we need to recognise what it is.’

Earlier this year, GPs raised safety concerns after NHS England said e-consultations are resolving ‘40-60%’ of patient ailments without having to schedule a face-to-face GP appointment.

Meanwhile, a leading super practice in London revealed plans to only offer patients face-to-face appointments where necessary, with the remainder to be dealt with via its eConsult online system.