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Online consultations don’t alleviate GP workload pressures, finds study

GP workload pressures are not reduced by the introduction of online consultations, a study has found.

Researchers studying the impact of the eConsult system found that GP practices experienced ‘no improvements’ to their workload.

Their paper, published in the BJGP, also said some patients were using the system ‘as an easier way to get an appointment and bypass the normal telephone booking system’.

The eConsult system sees patients complete an online form to provide a report of their condition, which is then reviewed by a GP.

But the University of Bristol researchers found from interviews with six of the 36 practices currently using eConsult that the ‘one-way’ communication from patients ‘reduced the ability for clinical decision-making’, requiring further contact with the patient.

The paper said: ‘GPs effectively deferred many e-consultations to face-to-face or telephone consultations.’

It added: ‘This links directly to another key finding: practice staff perceived that some patients were using e-consultations as an easier way to get an appointment and bypass the normal telephone booking system.’

Murray Ellender, chief executive of eConsult, said online consultations are not a ‘silver bullet’ to fix the workload problems in general practice, but added ‘our experience shows they could be a significant part of the solution, and have evolved a long way since this study was carried out’.

He added: ‘It is encouraging to note from the evaluation that more than six in 10 online consultations did not require a face-to-face consultation, and quantifiable feedback from patients indicates they value having this option.’

NHS England offered GP practices £45m to offer ‘online consultations’ as part of a new injection of IT funding last year but another recent study also found that online consultation systems are not likely to have any notable impact on patient waiting times and could even add to practice workload.

Meanwhile, CCGs in London ditched plans to use Babylon Health’s ‘symptom checker’ app to triage patients after patients said they would ‘manipulate’ the system to book GP appointments.