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Lack of basic IT infrastructure prevents isolating GPs from working at home

by Awil Mohamoud
20 April 2020

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Half of the GP workforce is unable to work remotely from home during the coronavirus crisis, mainly because they lack the ‘basic’ IT resources required, according to a GP survey.

Two-thirds of respondents who could not work from home cited poor ‘access to technology’ as a reason. 

The RCGP survey of 1,000 UK GPs, found half of those who have been working from home experienced issues connecting to VPN software, which allows them to access their practice’s system. 

These IT constraints mean that GPs who are self-isolating, but still well enough to work, are kept from delivering care to patients, which ‘affects capacity across the rest of the service’, the RCGP said.

According to BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautre, there are ‘large numbers’ of the GP workforce at home who are ‘well, but self-isolating’ because either they, or those they live with, have coronavirus symptoms.

Last Friday, NHS England announced that GPs and practice staff should now be able to get testing for Covid-19 ‘very rapidly’.

Earlier this month, NHS England pledged to support every GP practice ‘where possible’ with the ‘solutions’ they need for any of their staff to work remotely, including providing them with laptops.

In response to the findings, the RCGP today urged the Government to ensure it meets those commitments and also publishes a ‘remote care’ plan, issuing clear guidance on the use of the technology. 

Some practice managers have been investing in laptops for staff in anticipation that some will be forced to self-isolate, and could be left without the necessary equipment to continue working. 

One GP last month told Management in Practice that he was forced to fax paperwork back and forth with his colleagues while he self-isolated at home, as his practice lacked remote access software. 

Changes may become permanent

Just one in four consultations took place face-to-face in the past month, compared with almost three in four in the same period last year, according to surveillance figures announced by the RCGP. 

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: ‘It’s imperative that we safeguard the technological advances we have made during the pandemic, so that we can continue to work in different ways in the best interests of patients when we eventually get Covid-19 under control. 

‘This is not to say that general practice is going to become a permanently remote service – many patients want and need to be seen face to face, but having the technological capability to offer remote consultations, where appropriate, will be beneficial for general practice, the wider NHS and most importantly our patients.’

Last week, Professor Martin Marshall said that he predicts that as many as half of GP consultations could be done remotely after the Covid-19 pandemic has passed.

However, he also warned that ‘implementing wide-scale remote consulting is going to be more challenging for some practices than others – particularly given the pace at which general practice is having to make these changes’. 

He added that some practices still must overcome resource and technical challenges, which could be ‘particularly difficult in remote and rural areas’.