• Coronavirus will likely lead to increased use of digital GP services 
  • NHSX director Polly Bishop says digital will not be forced on patients but could help relieve strain on NHS
  • 200 practices contact digital GP provider for support in wake of coronavirus outbreak 

The spread of coronavirus could accelerate the NHS’ adoption of virtual appointments, according to an NHSX director.

NHSX director of digital experience Polly Bishop told an event at the Commons that digital services would be used to alleviate pressure on health services during the current outbreak. She added that, as a result, staff and patients might come to recognise the benefits of using digital tools more rapidly than had previously been thought.

Ms Bishop told the event on Thursday, organised by the digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation: “Through the coronavirus, there may be a way of us forcing the pace and learning the benefits on what we can do [in digital healthcare]. We will also learn what doesn’t work.”

Speaking to HSJ, Ms Bishop stressed that digital services would not be forced on patients, but were being increased to relieve the strain the virus is already putting on the NHS.

She said: “All of our services, especially the digital services, are being increased. GP practices are being burdened by calls, 111 is being burdened by calls. So, wherever we can, [we] relieve that pressure on face-to-face and healthcare professionals’ time. If digital can relieve that pressure, and if people are happy to use it, then we can stand things up very quickly.”   

NHS England on Thursday advised GP practices against online booking of face-to-face appointments — saying they should instead be triaged through a video or telephone assessment, to avoid potentially infected patients visiting a surgery.

And there is wider discussion of greater use of video appointments to avoid face-to-face, with the risk of infection both at the appointment and via travel.

In another development, digital healthcare provider Refero has said it has been contacted by more than 200 GP surgeries after offering digital consultations to public sector bodies for free to help reduce pressure caused by coronavirus.

Refero medical director, Ian Jackson, said: “In primary care, the ability to see increasing numbers of patients by teleconsultation and avoid the visit to the practice is reducing the risk of spread. We are already talking about the patients who think they might have it and are calling 111.

“There’s a huge group of patients who will have vague symptoms who may well have it — and so reducing the amount of traffic to primary care would have a real affect on helping to reduce cross infection.”

The discussion comes as the NHS ramps up its efforts to prevent the spread of the virus in the UK, including talks of drafting in final year medical students to work in hospitals if services come under severe pressure.