By phone, by screen or in person?
Technology should work for us, not the other way round. In medical care, just as in all other walks of life, technology is developing so fast it’s easy to feel left behind. It’s not just diagnostic tools and treatments that are becoming available, but the very way in which we access our care. For years little has changed in the ways we access our medical care. Yes, a few surgeries introduced phone appointments, but the feeling always prevailed that they were a poor second best to seeing a GP in person. The take up was slow. As of October 2018, the most recent statistics available from NHS Digital, 83% of all GP appointments were still face to face; 13% were by phone, 1% were home visits and just 0.5% were by video or internet. In the 18 months since these numbers came out, particularly since the onset of the Coronavirus, those numbers will have been turned on their head. Suddenly phone and video consultations were not the outliers, they became the only game in town. During the lockdown, all routine GP consultations were conducted using technology, phone or internet. Health administrators, nurses, GPs and their patients have all had to discard traditional habits and learn new techniques. The clock that marks technological change has been put on fast forward. This change has been acknowledged around the world. Quoted in the New York Times, one London-based GP, Dr Sam Wessely said: “We’re basically witnessing 10 years of change in one week. It used to be that 95 percent of patient contact was face-to-face: You go to see your doctor, as it has been for decades, centuries. But that has changed completely.”
As the lockdown has eased, so have the restrictions on how we access our medical care. Instead of being forced to have telephone or online appointments, they will become just one option in a range that includes video calls, email, telephone, even text messages. The options are only going to increase. But when faced with so many options, how do we know which is the appropriate path to take? Sometimes there is no replacement for seeing someone in person. But when that’s not the case, when you feel you can save time and effort by using technology rather than shoe leather to access medical care, what are the best guidelines to follow? When is it safe, even sensible to go virtual? Our experts give their opinion on the best approach to follow in the information age; the questions you should ask yourself and how you should answer them.
Your relationship with the clinic
Is this your first consultation with the surgery or clinic? Always think about having a proper consultation when you first register with a surgery. Your clinician should want to see you and get to you know you before they start treating you. If you can’t turn up in person on your first consultation, make sure you book a follow up appointment to go in. Developing a good relationship with your clinician(s) can go an awful long way to preventing problems from starting or catching them early if they do.
A new or repeat problem
Are you presenting something new to the doctor or have they seen it before? Clearly the GP is more likely to want to see you in person if this is the first time they have treated the particuar issue for you. If the appointment is to discuss ongoing treatment, or tweak medication it may be more appropriate to have a virtual consultation.
How the matter presents
Are you going to be talking about a rash, a mole or another visual aspect of a medical condition? If the doctor is likely to want to visually inspect any aspect of the condition a face to face or video consultation is likely to be more appropriate than a phone call. Equally is there likely to be any tactile element to the consultation? Spending a moment thinking in advance about the process of consultation may well determine the nature of appointment.
How the matter will need to be treated
Equally the treatment may determine how you should be seen by your GP. Spend a moment thinking how your clinician may want to treat the matter, from the very obvious, such as a wound that needs dressing, to the more nuanced, such as treatments that can be administered at home (eye drops, ointments for skin conditions etc) but which your GP may want to demonstrate to you in person in the first instance.
Your relationship with the technology
Think about what technology you feel most confident using. It may be that all options are available and appropriate to discuss whatever issue it is you are worried about. In which case make the appointment to suit your preferences. How much time do you have? How urgent is the matter? How near or far are you from your clinic? And don’t worry too much if you get it wrong. If it turns out that the phone appointment you preferred was not the correct way to consult your GP, they will tell you and book you in for an alternative appointment.