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Our ’appy new minister deserves a digital response

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So now we know what the future holds. Because we have a new health secretary, called Matt Hancock, and this new health secretary has his own social media app, called Matt Hancock.

Which seems to confirm what everyone is saying about him – specifically, that ‘He’s really into digital.’ Yes, go ahead and snigger, but this actually means – unamusingly – that he’s both tech-savvy and a technophile.

That is presumably why the politician with the app has registered with the practice with the app, GP at Hand. So everyone is ’appy. Except me, of course.

True, a future of virtual consultations and AI GP chatbots comes as no great surprise. The digital engine has been running for a while, and now we have the driver. ‘Hold onto your hats. Resistance is futile, it’s the direction of travel,’ we are told.

Open the floodgates with a 24/7 tech service inviting symptoms-for-fun and I predict a system crash

But you’d expect me, a geriatrique terrible, to hate the idea of a digital future, and I do. And you’d expect me to rant about it, so I will.

Take the supposedly unstoppable force that is AI. Anyone who believes the consultation can be reduced to ‘input data/follow algorithm/output diagnosis/suggest treatment’ is conceding they know jack-shit about general practice. I’d estimate only about 5% of consultations follow such a simple linear narrative, yet I’m guessing that they’re the sort featured in AI consult-offs against real doctors.

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The reality of most consultations is multiple symptoms, non sequiturs, irrelevant distractions and anxiety as cause or effect. Only a minority end with a clear diagnosis and that’s not because GPs are stupid, but because they are clever, and realise you can’t reduce chaos to a one-word output. After all, sometimes the ‘patient’ isn’t even the patient – such as the depressed and desperate mum repeatedly making unnecessary appointments for her sniffly child. Good luck with that, AI.

Besides, most symptoms are harmless, self-limiting and never get as far as a medical opinion simply because they don’t need one. Open the floodgates with a 24/7, all-you-can-eat tech service inviting symptoms-for-fun and I predict a system crash that will not be solved by switching it off and on again.

Seriously: just because there’s a workforce crisis coinciding with a medico-technological revolution doesn’t automatically mean one can solve the other. If you’re not convinced, just think of 10 of your most complex, poly-symptomatic, demanding patients, and how you try to help them while limiting the collateral damage. And then imagine what havoc they could wreak on a digital system, and vice versa.

It’s horrific and demeaning seeing technology masquerading as progress and convenience, reducing our profession from art to pseudoscience. The great and good GPs commemorated on the NHS’s 70th birthday must be turning in their graves. They deserve better. So do we, and so do our patients.

So if I can figure out how to download Matt Hancock’s Matt Hancock app, I will give a response. Yes, that response will be digital – and yes, that does mean two fingers.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex