Greater Manchester moves to virtual appointments

Patients in Greater Manchester are now benefitting from being able to see their GP through virtual appointments and online consultations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for more digital solutions to allow patients to still access care and support from general practice while maintaining social distancing and shielding. More than 98% of GP practices across the city-region have now rolled out video consultations and no longer rely on face-to-face appointments to care for their patients while more than 2,300 laptops, 1,720 headsets and 1,500 webcams have been sourced and delivered for use by practices.

In total 97% of practices have also rolled out digital technology to enable online triage. This allows patients to request help from their GP practice by completing a short form online, which is then assessed by a practice clinician to offer the right care, including a telephone or virtual appointment, or referral to other services or self-care.

GPs have described the changes as “transformational” to primary care, helping to solve issues including telephone queues and delays for routine appointments. Practices can also use data to predict when more people are likely to contact them for support, and can plan for this by ensuring the capacity of the team can meet the demand.

Dr Simon de Vial, a GP and Chief Executive of Tower Family Healthcare GP practices in Bury, said: “This has been the most transformational change to the way we work that I’ve seen in 28 years as a GP. Patients are able to send a request online or by phone and receive the right care much quicker than they would have done previously.

“It saves patients time and hassle of waiting in telephone queues and it enables us to treat patients quicker as they have already briefed us on their symptoms online, meaning we can provide more time for patients with complex conditions.”

Patients have also been receptive to the new changes with practices reporting overwhelmingly positive feedback. Demand for online services and online triage has also meant practice phonelines are now more readily available for patients who do not wish to use or are unable to use digital-first technology, enabling those residents to still access GP services.

Dr Paul Jackson, a GP partner at Boundary House Medical Centre in Sale, Trafford, had already begun to use digital services and felt well prepared to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. The practice had been using online consultation and workflow system askmyGP for 6 months before the pandemic allowing patients to contact them digitally or over the phone.

Dr Jackson said: “We were consistently seeing 75% of people contact us online and 25% over the phone. Both were able to get fast same-day access to a clinician of choice with no more long waits for GPs. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive.” He added that since the pandemic, contact using the digital route has increased and less people have requested face-to-face appointments, decreasing from 36% to less than 2%. The practice has also supported home working through new kit and virtual team meetings taking place.

“Our clinicians have become more comfortable managing patients remotely and we continued to offer fast same day access. It has energised the workforce, made us more resilient and fit for the future. There are no long waits for primary care contact and most patients get to the right person first time. Clinicians can offer appropriate amounts of time to those that need it.

“We’ve also been able to monitor potential COVID-19 patients by loaning out SATs monitors and daily contact by call, text or video to monitor vital signs. This has proved remarkably successful and we’ve been able to pick up deterioration rapidly.”

A need to ensure no patient is left behind by the digital transformation has also been a priority for primary care to address during the pandemic, including those without access to digital technology.

Dr Chris Nortcliff, GP and Head of Practices at Salford Primary Care Together CIC, says they have introduced mobile phones to homeless shelters in Salford, set up to allow online registrations and video/telephone consultations in order to support homeless people to access support. 

He said: “COVID-19 has highlighted in particular how digital can exacerbate access problems for some people without access to technology or data, not enhance it. 

“Introducing the mobile phone to shelters means we can remove barriers to people accessing care, including making the registration process digital and flexible without the need for documentation or travel to the practice.

“It is only small numbers of people, but it has shown in a real way how easy it is to get people the support they need in a new way through digital.”

For more information, visit: https://healthinnovationmanchester.com/our-work/covid-19-digital-primary-care/