What are the trends in terms of demand for virtual GP services? We asked Jonathan Patrick, Managing Director of Teladoc Health UK to explain…
What trends are you noticing in terms of demand for virtual GP services?
We’re seeing rising demand. As everyone knows, the NHS is struggling everywhere, from primary all the way through to secondary care. The harder things get in the NHS, the more patients are likely to look for another way. Many patients are covered by insurance policies, employer programs, and the like that include a virtual GP service so, when they’re struggling to engage with their local GP, why wouldn’t they give virtual a go?
Are these services still as popular? What’s driving this?
They’re more popular! The pandemic turbocharged the move of virtual things from niche to mainstream. Online shopping was already well on the way, but things that we had previously thought could only be done in person were now being done remotely as well. Online medical appointments, including mental health consultations and physio, are part of this trend: they don’t feel too different from the move to remote working. Virtual is not the answer to everything, but it can be the answer to a lot and patients appreciate the convenience and immediacy of this channel. GPs and other practitioners can diagnose a high proportion of conditions remotely. There will be more and more services looking to do this.
What will become of these services as we emerge into a post-pandemic world? Will demand hold up?
I think we’ll see demand increase, particularly as tech-savvy middle-agers increase their usage of health services as they age. Who wants to go and wait in a GP surgery anymore? If I can see a GP remotely and get a prescription sent to me or my local pharmacy, that’s great. If the GP decides I need to be seen in person, at least I know the trip is necessary. And, by the way, I’m not just talking about private GP services here, this is going to be the model in the NHS as well. As we see increased advances and innovation, like wearables and improved health apps on our phones, we’ll find that virtual GP results in better, more accessible care for everyone.
How will these services evolve, will there be more specialist additions?
The pace of development is very fast. The shift to virtual has meant a huge investment in the sector. Tech already allows us to track variables such as heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and temperature. This has paved the way for “hospital at home” providers and better care programs for the elderly. We are seeing the beginning of the end of the “we’ll keep them in hospital for observation” approach that we know can negatively affect patient outcomes. The other big change is going to be in access to hospital specialists. At Teladoc, we’ve recently launched our Consultant Connect service, which enables GPs to get advice from hospital specialists when they’re deciding what to do with patients. It has a massive impact on patient care and means that the vast majority of patients get the care they need without having the inconvenience of a waiting list and visit to the hospital.
Are there any drawbacks or restrictions to using them which might mean a rebound of in-person services?
In-person services are not dead yet and won’t be for a long, long time, if ever. Some examinations are impossible to virtualise and clinicians will likely always need the option of opting for an in-person consultation. There was certainly an in-person backlog after COVID because physicians had got behind in terms of managing long-term conditions, and many patients had developed conditions that required physical examination. In the longer term, though, we’re expecting that virtual appointments of one type or another will always be the first point of call, with physical appointments allocated to those who need them. People may not appreciate having to go through the hoop in the early days, but as virtual tech improves, patients will prefer convenience and immediacy.
Looking ahead, what trends do you see coming down the line that will affect virtual GP services?
The biggest impact is going to be patient-facing AI, without a doubt. At the moment use of AI is restricted to a few niche cases, such as examining scans for cancer. As more of the AI language models evolve we are expecting to see better symptom checking before a patient engages with a GP or other medic and, ultimately, new pathways in pharmacy and the community as patients take more control of their own health through interaction with AI. For example, making more pharmacy products available either without prescription or with an “AI prescription” will result in more accessible care and treatment for patients.
Could Consumer Duty affect demand where customers’ best interests are better served by an in-person appointment?
We’re very lucky in that the medical sector is already tightly regulated in the UK. AI and virtual care could well result in a wild west situation in some countries, but it won’t in the UK. If a patient needs an in-person appointment, any virtual medical service, NHS or private, needs to be able to make that choice for the patient. Our laws mean that we have to plan for our healthcare services to accommodate 100% of patients, we don’t plan to let any fall through the cracks. The system isn’t perfect, but we are in a good position compared to many other countries.