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How COVID-19 drove technology transformation in GP practices

Photo of Dr Margaret O'Brien, Head of GP Services, HSCB
Dr Margaret O'Brien, Head of GP Services
By Margaret O’Brien, Head of GP Services, Health and Social Care Board

There’s a joke going round on social media about who is responsible for driving the digital transformation in your organisation, the punchline is COVID-19.

Within the GP circles and I suspect a lot of other sectors, there’s a broad truism to this. GPs, with their knowledge of infection control and disease spread, were one of the first to recognise the effects the pandemic would have and took steps to protect patients and their staff.

This meant reducing and limiting the number of people walking into surgeries, introducing telephone and then video consultations with patients and working with community pharmacy colleagues to enable repeat prescriptions to be collected.

It’s estimated that at the height of the pandemic, there were approximately 900 video consultations carried out by GPs weekly or about 10,000 video consultations in total.

GPs, like many other health and social professionals, had to upskill and creatively use the technology at their disposal to ensure patients continued to receive the care and treatment they needed.
One of the positives of using technology for consultations is that patients have not had to wait too long for a call back. Previously they might have had to wait for a week or two for a face to face appointment.

In terms of waiting times, many GPs have moved away from booked surgeries by triaging all patients so no-one is waiting for an appointment. Triage is the process the health service uses to determine a patient’s condition in order to prioritise treatment.

The only forward booking is for review clinics such as diabetes and asthma.

All other patients get a GP call back and the outcome is usually:

  1. Advice,
  2. a prescription,
  3. referral to the practice nurse, pharmacist or mental health practitioner,
  4. face to face assessment by the GP, or
  5. referral to hospital.

The move towards greater use of technology has been generally welcomed by patients, especially those who just want some reassurance or need a prescription.

It won’t replace the need for face to face consultations for patients with more complex conditions or some older patients who may feel more comfortable speaking in person to a trusted doctor.

While the increased use of technology has helped GPs better manage demand for their service, I know technology remains a challenge for many GPs, as it is does for many sectors.

Many of us are on systems that have unique levels of integration, or perform functions in a different way or perhaps we need to be trained and upskilled on new technology and systems.

The pandemic has dramatically changed how GPs interact with the public in such a short period of time that there will necessarily be a period readjustment by both the profession and the public.

Adopting new technology will not always be straightforward but at the heart of it all remains a commitment to providing the most appropriate care to the people who really need it.