By Dr Murray Ellender, Practicing GP, CEO and Co-Founder, eConsult
More than 18 months ago, office workers were forced to embrace the remote working lifestyle. And now, headed back into the office, the UK feels as though it is returning to its pre-pandemic state as we learn to live with COVID-19. But it is easy to overlook the repercussions of the new hybrid work model on GP surgeries and the complexities the sector faces in adapting to a hybrid model. Of course, at the beginning of the pandemic, the number of GP appointments taking place face-to-face dropped significantly, as virtual appointments increased to mitigate the spread of the virus. But now, as the demand for GP services continues to increase, there is an urgent need to find a solution to cope with the influx in demand for the already exhausted and overworked GPs, that suits the hybrid model.
Traditionally, it hasn’t been the easiest for the General Practitioner to embrace hybrid working. Despite the opportunities and technology available to provide support and streamline procedures, GPs and the public are reluctant to leave behind traditional methods and embrace new concepts when it comes to health
From electronic prescriptions to online video appointments, the primary healthcare sector has been coerced – mainly out of necessity – into a digital working model during the pandemic. Fundamentally, we have seen the adoption of digital triage services rocket as they act as a transformative shoulder to lean on for overworked GPs.
In short, encouraging GPs towards a hybrid working model actually supports patients, from any location, with any issue, long term and ensures the patients who need it most, are seen face-to-face.
Not just a ‘quick fix’
The rise in implementation and demand of digital triage since the pandemic has been evident from the number of online consultations being carried out. For example, at eConsult, we went from 130,000 online consultations across 1,200 practices in February 2020, to over one million across 3,200 practices in the same month the following year.
For many surgeries, digital triage may have initially felt like a temporary measure to serve patients that couldn’t make it into the surgery as a result of COVID-19. However, digital triage is emerging as a long-term solution to supporting GPs in embracing hybrid working. With digital triage, GPs can send messages via email/SMS to their patients – including prescriptions – delivering personalised information that the patient can trust. However, it is important to note that the point of digital triage is not to remove face-to-face consultations altogether. In-person appointments will always play a critical role, especially for more complex or urgent cases. Instead, digital triage is intended to remove the ‘noise’ – hay fever, blood tests, repeat prescriptions – and is set up to empower GPs to dedicate more time and headspace to the more complex patients that need face-to-face appointments. For patients, digital triage ensures that the patients who need to be seen, aren’t stuck in a long phone queue at 8am desperately trying to get through before their day starts and that they actually get support quickly.
In instances where demand becomes particularly high in a specific region, we’re seeing some GPs embrace outsourcing in order to allocate resources to where they are needed the most.
This doesn’t just mean hiring remote doctors as we recently saw with the Ranworth Surgery in Clacton-On-Sea who opted to hire a part-time remote GP after struggling to find a traditional salaried GP. But there’s a real opportunity for GP surgeries to embrace eHubs. In this context, these are online systems for delivering digital and traditional primary care across primary care networks (PCN). The first model eHub which was set up by The Hurley Group offers PCNs the chance to reduce the crushing workload from the pandemic by working together to resolve patient issues that don’t necessarily require face-to-face consultation. It’s important to note that the individuals resolving the patient query don’t just have to be GPs, but can be skilled primary care specialists such as nurses or pharmacists, further alleviating the pressure.
This is a revolutionary idea that delivers patients the care they need in an efficient, safe, and timely manner by empowering GPs to seamlessly deploy a remote workforce at a time of critical need. If we take The Hurley Group’s eHub as an example, over the course of 10,000 online consultations, a remote closure rate of 86% created an estimated saving of more than £82,000. This is an exciting model for GP practices across the country to explore, but it’s success will ultimately rely on robust training and dedication to the building of experience within the team.
The digital GP
Businesses all over the world have been encouraged to implement digital transformation at the start of the pandemic, which, for many, resulted in re-evaluating operating systems and piloting new procedures to establish a new, efficient ways of working. Long queues and overflowing waiting rooms no longer need to be associated with GPs. Instead, the end goal should always be to find the solution that favors better patient centric care.