Video calls to GPs became the default when Covid struck. But for the very young and very old this way of communicating is far from ideal. Trish Greenhalgh looks at what can be done better 

Tuesday 24 August 2021 

[Excerpts] Before the pandemic, billboards in London advertised a doctor-in-your-pocket service. Targeted at busy commuters, it consisted of a smartphone app and a promise of a video link-up to a real doctor within 45 minutes. What’s not to like?

Plenty. The pop-up video doc may be fine, on this occasion, for busy accountant Adesh Patel, who wants an antibiotic in the post for his septic finger. Indeed, patients like him may not even need a video call, they can explain their symptoms to a doctor by phone. The video link was, arguably, a commercial gimmick to lure the worried well.

But what about Adesh’s 79-year-old grandmother, Adiya Patel? She had a hip replacement five years ago and is getting similar pains in the other hip. If you didn’t know her well, you’d think she needed another operation, but her longstanding GP, Dr Choudhury, knows that she wants to avoid surgery after a reaction to an anaesthetic last time.

He’s been helping her lose weight so that the operation won’t be needed. Adiya is miserable after her husband died last year and has a touch of heart failure, which sometimes makes her breathless. All this is controlled by regular chats and various tablets that Dr Choudhury (who speaks her native language) has tweaked over the years. She’s very fond of him.

In his face-to-face surgery today, Dr Choudhury will see: Lydia Poliakov, a 53-year-old shop assistant who has found a lump on her breast; six-month-old Archie Merton who’s got a high fever and is not eating; and Jim Brown, an unemployed man who has no family, no home, no mobile phone and no money. Jim needs regular foot and eye checks for his diabetes and a weekly prescription for methadone since he came off heroin.

These fictitious cases illustrate the findings of a recent study my team did into why some remote consultations by video are efficient, effective and well-received but others are logistically cumbersome, technically inadequate and associated with deficiencies in care, such as missed diagnoses or a poor patient experience.

While it’s impossible to generalise, remote consultations seem to be less suitable for people who:

It turns out that old Mrs Patel, who was finding the walk to the surgery increasingly difficult on her painful hip, finds remote consultations with Dr Choudhury quite acceptable as long as one of her relatives is available to help her connect to the iPad, she can be sure to get her own GP, and everyone keeps out of the living room while she’s talking to the doctor.

Our research has shown that GP consultations should not be remote by default, but that with attention to infrastructure, training and planning, remote consultations could become a realistic option for a much wider range of people than the healthy young professionals towards whom they were originally targeted.

Read more at: