An interactive discussion with special guests on the rapid digitisation of primary care caused by COVID-19 and its long-term impact. 

We were thrilled to host a webinar with some of the industry’s leading voices on the digitisation of healthcare as caused by current circumstances. 

The webinar was moderated by Dr Sam Shah, HETT Committee Chair. Joining Sam for the discussion were:

  • Dr Minal Bakhai - Deputy Director and National Clinical Lead Digital First Primary Care and GP, NHS England and Improvement
  • Professor Trisha Greenhalgh - GP and Professor of Primary Health Sciences, University of Oxford
  • Click here to download the on-demand webinar

Digital Triages and Video Consultations 

The discussion focused on the key steps that have been taken to ensure successful triage and online consultation during the COVID-19 crisis and the key principles of asynchronous practice.

Trisha Greenhalgh began by outlining the need to examine digitalisation within the context of everything that is happening. We are dealing with an entirely new disease, a new form of interacting with patients and new service models too. To understand the clinical dimensions of COVID-19, we need to get our heads around all three. 

Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2020. There had been almost no research into this emerging disease, very few consultations were carried out by primary care staff via remote or digital means and workflows were what we now consider to be ‘traditional’. 

Fast forward to the final few months of the year and the pace and scale of change has been incredible. There are now thousands of articles on COVID-19, almost 100% of practices have or are looking into video consultations and service models have transformed completely. 

Minal Bakhai, who has been offering online and video consultations for the last six years, has been amazed at how quickly everyone else has caught up. The NHS’ long-term commitment to delivering digital-first primary care by 2023/2024 has been “turbo-charged.” She suggested that more has been achieved in the previous four weeks than in the last year. 

She has noticed a shift in organisational culture and how quickly practices have adapted. It has changed the way services are provided and has been possible, in part, thanks to the open communication between larger organisations and smaller community services. 

The aim now, as we look forwards towards a post-COVID period, is to build on the growing confidence of primary care providers. It is surprisingly straightforward to use this technology, particularly as many of us are already using it in our daily lives. 

Although Minal Bakhai expects the number of online consultations to drop post-COVID, it is clear digital alternatives will be utilised a lot more than previously thought. The pandemic has allowed us to rethink how we design primary care models to include remote working, for example, while still providing a holistic service to patients. 

Trisha Greenhalgh suggested that around 40% of patient requests can currently be resolved by direct messaging. These messages, added to video and audio consultations, mean only 5% lead to actual face-to-face appointments. Having a remote triaging system in place that significantly reduces physical meetings protects both patients and staff.

With a structured questionnaire, which involves questions that would typically be asked during a normal consultation, patients can be better helped from the comfort of their home. These questions are not just transactional, but they also take into account a patient’s feelings and worries too.

Minal Bakhai outlined that patients are more than happy to be seen in this way, particularly during the pandemic but she predicts this mentality is here to stay. One of the most common concerns patients have about seeing their GP involves the perceived ‘gatekeepers’ who they need to get approval from first. Remote consultations provide a direct line to a patient’s GP, ensuring they feel seen and heard. 

As long as these systems remain secure and private, there is nothing to suggest they cannot be utilised post-COVID. The longer we are all dealing with the impact of the pandemic, the fewer objections to digital there will be. This will be especially important as the NHS faces a rise in non-COVID treatments once the pandemic is ‘over’. 

To make sure practices are prepared, it is important to embrace digitalisation but also to consider its wider use. Consultations with GPs are the primary use at the moment but the panel expects this to expand to other areas, such as pharmacy, once life ‘gets back to normal’. 

It can traditionally take practices 6-18 months to implement and embed service improvements of this kind. Necessity meant current measures were adopted and rolled out much faster. This transformation, both at pace and at scale, can continue in the future with the right support. As Minal Bakhai suggests, this will only be possible with more “boots on the ground” support as local practices are already having to juggle multiple priorities. 

The webinar was full of insight into the digitalisation of primary care and we definitely recommend giving it a watch to absorb everything Trisha Greenhalgh, Minal Bakhai and Sam Shah had to say. 

This CPD-certified webinar is just one of the many we are part of as part of a leading healthcare innovation summit. To be one of the first to hear about future discussions like these, make sure to sign up below. 

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