College takes the lead in advising patients on online consultation safety

Publication date: 09 April 2018

The Royal College of GPs has published a list of questions for patients, GPs and commissioners to consider before using or utilising online general practice services.

  • Will they see me whatever my health problem, or exclude me if I have complex health needs?
  • Will they have access to my full medical record, so that they know my medical history?
  • What happens if I need to see a GP in person – how far will I need to travel?

These are all questions patients should ask themselves if they are considering using an online provider of GP consultations, either web-based or via a smartphone app, according to new guidance from the Royal College of General Practitioners, published today.

It also recommends that patients ensure the service has been inspected by the Care Quality Commission, or equivalent bodies outside of England; look into how their personal information will be kept safe; and consider whether it is providing a free NHS service, or if a fee will be required.

The guidance comes as a growing number of services offering consultations online, most commonly via a smartphone apps, are hitting the market. Whilst many of these are private, some have developed partnerships with GP practices in order to deliver NHS care.

The new document, which is available to download, also outlines considerations for GPs and GP practices considering using or implementing online consultation services. 
It also includes advice for commissioning bodies such as Clinical Commissioning Groups in England that might be considering a system for their local population – one question being whether the system is likely to address current demand or generate new demand, and if the latter, what resources are available to meet it.

Professor Martin Marshall, Vice Chair of the RCGP and author of the guidance, said: "Technology is being used more and more in every aspect of our lives and general practice has always been a trailblazer in this respect.

"Online consultations can seem like a very convenient option for accessing general practice services, particularly for young, generally healthy people who want to see a GP quickly. 
"But the ways some online services are provided raise patient safety concerns - people need to be aware of these, and properly understand what they are signing up to. Often, for example, patients will have consultations with unfamiliar GPs who don't have access to their full patient records.

"The College recognises that online consultations can be beneficial for patients, and indeed many practices across the country are already implementing in some form. However, we want to ensure that they are being implemented in a way that is safe for patients, and alleviates pressures in general practice and across the NHS. We also think that online consultations should be provided in addition to traditional services, not instead of them. 

"We hope this guidance will help everyone – patients, GPs, practice team members and commissioners - gain a better insight into online consultations, and, most importantly, help equip them with the information they need, so that patients are receiving high-quality, safe care, whichever way they choose to receive it."

Further Information

RCGP Press office: 020 3188 7633/7574/7575
Out of hours: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editor

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 52,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.

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