GPs using the online consultation system provided by eConsult will be able to restrict patient requests as the company introduces a feature for turning the system off outside of core hours.
Practices will initially only be able to switch to an ‘in-hours’ service, covering Monday-Friday, 8am-6.30pm.
But the online consultation company is also working on introducing the option to turn off eConsult on an ad hoc basis, as well as offering set hours for the start and end time in which patients can send in online forms.
GPs from eConsult said the new set of ‘demand management features’ was born out of recognition of how ‘overwhelmed’ the GP workforce is currently.
It follows recent reports that GP practices wanting to turn off e-consultation forms at weekends and evenings were facing ‘resistance’ from the digital provider and CCGs.
NHS England advised GPs earlier this year that they should allow patients to make requests at any time and warned against switching off online consultation systems out of hours.
The advice was published in a standard operating procedure – which has since been withdrawn.
Contractually GPs are not required to offer e-consultations at all at the present time. However, before the pandemic the BMA and NHS England agreed that it will eventually become contractual for practices to offer online consultations during core hours.
In an announcement today, eConsult invited GP practices to register their interest in activating the new ‘in-hours’ function that will appear on their practice ‘consultation hours’ setting page – noting that the function is currently in the rollout phase.
Dr Murray Ellender, a GP and CEO of eConsult, said: ‘As the demand in general practice continues to surge, we know that it is vital for us to work with practices to continue to optimise GP time and resource. This is why it is critical that we work flexibly with practices to educate patients on how, and when, it is best to engage with the eConsult consultation service, versus when to utilise the self-service functions.
‘By integrating new demand management features today, we are continuing to deliver on our commitment to support the UK’s hard-working GPs, giving them greater control of their workload day to day.’
Speaking to Pulse, Professor Clare Gerada, non-executive director at eConsult, added: ‘We recognise how overwhelmed GPs are and how much work GPs are doing, how we’ve opened up an avenue of need and how it is important GPs remain able to do their work safely.’