The last time I tried to call my GP at 8:00am on the dot, I was caller 36 in the queue and by 8:30am there were no appointments left for the day. Sound familiar?

Having your GP on your phone may be efficient, but it's not perfect, warns Hannah Travis

Having your GP on your phone may be efficient, but it's not perfect, warns Hannah Travis

It therefore comes as no surprise that the concept of speaking to a GP in minutes using your smartphone is an extremely attractive one. This was the promise made to patients using the service ‘GP at Hand’ by Babylon Health.

However, a poster advertising campaign, a paid Facebook post and a website advertising this service have now been ruled to be ‘misleading’ by the Advertising Standards Agency.

Little did patients know from these initially promising advertisements that they would need to de-register from their own GP in order to use the service. In doing so, the allure of convenience vanished. De-registering from your GP, especially if you have a complicated medical history or a chronic illness could be more detrimental to your health than waiting a little longer for a GP appointment. Records could be lost and there could be delays in essential referrals for further care for example.

Equally misleading was the promise of speaking to a GP within minutes which was only true after the patient had signed up and gone through the lengthy registration process which could take weeks in itself. Furthermore, there are very limited qualified doctors in the UK. Once the patient levels using this service increased, there would be the same availability issues for digital appointments as GP surgeries experience now.

Pitfalls

Patients may not have the same opportunity to ask questions as they would face to face and arguably doctor/patient rapport is lost over the phone. Patients are not medically trained so it often takes skilled prompting questions from the GP to get all the information needed to provide a safe diagnosis. Whilst this could be achieved by the phone or video call, it may take longer as body language or signs of discomfort are not as easy to spot.

Furthermore, the prescribing of medicines including antibiotics or strong painkillers without a full physical examination may also prove problematic.

The service could be useful for the most common ailments but a lot of the time patients won’t necessarily know if their condition is serious or not until they see the GP. A lot of the time, one look at a patient will give the GP all the information they need. This could however still be achieved by video but there will be no physical examination ie checking for infection in ears or throat or even more importantly checking the temperature and/or blood pressure of a patient. A GP on the phone cannot listen to a patient’s chest or heart.

Legal issues

In the absence of a physical examination, there is a potential risk of missing vital symptoms and conditions that may otherwise have been spotted. It is therefore not difficult to envisage a scenario whereby we see medical negligence claims based upon the overreliance and/or inappropriateness of a digital appointment when circumstances demanded a physical review.


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