GP appointments have gone virtual – here’s how to get the most out of them
Just a few years ago, the thought of having a doctor’s appointment via video call would have been unthinkable but, as a direct result of COVID-19, they’ve suddenly become commonplace. Minimising face-to-face contact is crucial for keeping transmission rates low and protecting doctors and patients, but this lack of physical interaction can also cause concern and you may have even found yourself delaying a visit to the doctor because you’ve been put off by this new digital landscape. If that’s the case, read on: we’ve put our top questions to leading GPs in order to address some of the most common concerns out there – and allay your fears in seeking help.
How do remote consultations work?
Concerned about booking an appointment? As Dr Naveen Puri, lead physician at Bupa Health Clinics (bupa.co.uk) explains, it’s not a complicated process. “When you book an appointment, you’re given the option to have either a phone call or video consultation with the doctor,” he says. “If you choose to have a video appointment, a Skype link will be sent to you to click on just before your allotted time, which you and your GP will join together. Essentially, it is the same as having a face-to-face appointment, you are just in different locations. For minor medical issues, such as a rash or a mole, patients get more out of a video consultation than a phone call because they’re still able to interact visually. This service has proved incredibly useful for those who are self-isolating, or who are unable or unwilling to visit a GP surgery. During lockdown, virtual services have also been a popular option for patients who weren’t sure how to seek medical help or were worried about wasting NHS resources during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Dr Puri also advises that you consider where you position your video call. “With remote appointments, it’s important to remember that the doctor can’t see all of you. So, if you’ve got a rash on your leg, for example, it’s going to be a bit more challenging for the doctor to diagnose,” he says. “Think about where you position your webcam: do you need a chair or table as a prop? Or would having someone else in the room help? That can sometimes be useful if you need to move the webcam to an awkward area for you to reach.”
Can online consultations actually be more effective than in-person appointments?
Although the pros might not be obvious to you at first, video appointments can throw up some unexpected benefits. “Most patients actually seem to like remote consultations – people don’t need to book time off work or make travel arrangements to come into the surgery, for starters,” explains Dr Victoria Caswell. “If appropriate, we can send prescriptions electronically to a pharmacy of the patient’s choice, too. However, there are some downsides and elderly patients who struggle to use their phones or have hearing impairments are, of course, at a disadvantage so it’s important that we recognise that. People who speak limited or no English, or those who have learning difficulties, also tend to struggle more with online consultations. In these circumstances, we will often see these patients in person or employ the use of a translator if language is the main barrier.”
Ultimately, video consultations mean you might get to ‘see’ your doctor a lot faster, too. “They reduce long waiting times for appointments and can help to decrease delays from over running,” explains Dr Thresher. “This means that GP practices can now offer a greater number of appointments, and doctors can provide patients with better care more quickly.”
Can we still see a doctor face-to-face?
Yes, it’s still possible to see your GP in person if you need to. “Face-to-face appointments are here to stay and will always be available,” says Dr Thresher. “There are plenty of reasons why they might be preferable or required, including requirements for physical or intimate examinations, complex medical issues, mental health, language barriers, and safeguarding children, to name but a few. But because video consultations generally take less time, there are often more appointments available, which means that you may be able to book a video appointment more quickly than a physical appointment at the clinic. If you need to speak to a doctor sooner than the face-toface waiting list allows, I’d suggest a video consultation as a good first step.”
How can we get the most out of an appointment?
Feeling anxious about speaking to a doctor via video link is understandable, but Dr Kelly Thresher, a GP at Q doctor (qdoctor.io), has some top tips that will help you feel more prepared:
- Write a list of all the questions you would like answered and any additional points you would like to raise in advance of the call.
- Make sure you are in a private, quiet space that’s free of distractions so that you can ask and answer questions as honestly and accurately as possible. (Taking a call in the supermarket probably isn’t the best idea!)
- Check your internet connection. If you have unreliable broadband, consider temporarily disconnecting other devices that might be using bandwidth, and always use Wi-Fi where possible.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your GP to repeat themselves – not being in the same room as someone during a conversation means that it can sometimes be more challenging to communicate, so it’s absolutely fine to ask for clarification on anything you’re unclear about.
- If you think a face-to-face appointment might be needed, share this with your doctor and explain your concerns. If a follow-up in-person appointment is needed, they will be able to help you organise this and provide guidance on how to visit the clinic safely.
What about the future?
It seems that the current situation is here to stay, at least for a while. “Most GP practices, like the one I work in, are not planning to go back to face-to-face appointments for the foreseeable future,” Dr Caswell tells us. “Remote consulting is seen as the way forward and, in a lot of ways, it is a more efficient system. My message to everyone is to please not be afraid of speaking to a clinician remotely. Your GPs are still there to help, and we will do our best to continue to work, despite these challenging times.