The evolution of post-pandemic healthcare is moving forward at an unprecedented pace. The need to minimise the risk of cross-infection blended with an unstoppable rise in digital innovation are primary drivers in this transformation. Yet there is another driver for change that is often overlooked coming from patients themselves who are eager to embrace the convenience of video consultations and more efficient services.
Not only are video consultations between patients and doctors technically possible, but they are also increasingly being viewed as acceptable, even desirable. As a recent report by the Nuffield Trust highlights, patient-facing health care technology is rapidly expanding in line with increased interest in using digital tools to manage personal health and wellbeing. Flexibility and diversity are key themes here, for example, a patient may have an initial video consultation via a diagnostic platform, followed by referral to a specialist for physical investigation and treatment if needed. It’s about creating a seamless patient journey by combining the best of virtual and real-world services.
Supporting the patient journey with video consultations
Placing the patient at the centre of these transformations is key to the future success of digitally enabled healthcare and as highlighted in a recent report there is a clear ambition from the NHS both nationally and locally to embrace new technologies and bring streamlined digital services online.
Will it take time to fully integrate digital services into traditional healthcare models? Yes, that is to be expected but already the potential benefits for patients greatly outweigh any reluctance to change. For example:
Video consultations give patients much better access to the right care at the right time.
The need to take time off work for a consultation is minimised and travel costs eliminated.
The risk of cross-infection is also eliminated.
It is easy for patients to ask a support partner to join the conversation if that is appropriate.
Prolonged inpatient time can be minimised or avoided.
Patient privacy can be ensured by using secure and soundproof video consultation booths.
Compliance with new GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) rules are supported by enhancing confidentiality.
Of equal significance is the fact that pressure is taken off hospital staff allowing them to use their time more creatively and effectively.
Maximising the creative and cost-effective use of real estate is another important driver for change. For example, online video appointments also allow resources to be made available regardless of geographical location and this can help to balance uneven demand and supply between different regions at different times. Other benefits typically include:
Online consultations can help to create a divide between urgent and elective work.
Bottlenecks in patient management can be removed, waiting times reduced and backlogs managed more creatively.
Use of single-point access supports effective triage and more efficient use of resources.
Separation of the space used for virtual and physical consultations.
Virtual consultation pods are better for the environment and typically use less than 14% of the space needed in a traditional consulting room.
From the doctor’s point of view, clinical information, basic observations and patient records can be updated in real-time making significant improvements to the patient’s journey. In other words, what is happening now is nothing short of a reimagining of the patient's relationship with healthcare as consultations are being delivered where the patient is located, rather than where the doctor is located. This move to virtual consultations also makes it much easier to draw on the resources of multidisciplinary teams, making the pathway to specialist care much easier to access.
Increased patient satisfaction
Although research into video consultations is still in its infancy, recent randomised controlled trials have shown that consultations conducted through a video link tend to be associated with high rates of satisfaction among patients and staff alike. Offering the choice to attend a virtual consultation tends to be universally welcomed amongst patients and in a recent Cochrane review of telemedicine interventions, including 38 studies of video conferencing, it was found that the quality of life improved for patients using these services. Not only are the time-consuming frustrations of hospital visits avoided but enhancing patient self-care via remote support has the potential to significantly reduce the demand on overstretched hospital services.
The NHS long term plan
According to the NHS Long Term Plan, every patient will have the right to be offered digital-first primary care by 2023-24, with video consultations due to be available by April 2021. The benefits of video consultations aren’t just reserved for primary care however, as the concept of the virtual ward round is also beginning to gain popularity. Just as in primary care this can improve efficiency and free up precious face-to-face time for patients who need to be seen in person.
Ultimately transforming the patients’ healthcare journey with digital technology is a process that can’t and shouldn’t be rushed. As suggested in a recent report by the National Institute for Health Research there is a need for a slow and incremental introduction of new services such as video technology. New practices need to be aligned with existing practices with flexibility and sensitivity, embracing the needs not just of patients but also of the clinical staff and associated technical support teams.
The future is indeed looking bright for online consultations. Patients with limited mobility and chronic health conditions are set to benefit significantly and will probably be amongst the first to enjoy the advantages of digital consultations. As confidence grows and word spreads about the convenience and benefits of virtual medicine, the demand for video consultations as part of an out-of-hours service looks set to grow exponentially. In other words, with the right approach and carefully paced integration supported by in-service education, video consultations are set to transform the patients’ journey, making it easier and more cost-effective to get the care they need.