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Effective practice communication can increase patient confidence in requesting care online, pilot suggests

by Beth Gault
18 January 2023

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Well-targeted and consistent communication from practices can reduce patients’ reluctance to request care from their GP surgery using online methods, a pilot scheme has shown.

It can also potentially cut complaints about accessing their GP.

The pilot on Inclusive Access Routes to General Practice took place across 69 practices in the Humber and North Yorkshire ICS area from November 2021 to April 2022.

Its main aim was to test materials that could help practice staff explain the different (and changing) ways in which patients can contact the surgery to access care, in a bid to help them move away from the habit of calling in by phone.

Pilot practices were focused on raising patient awareness and understanding around making requests for a consultation via online means (a secure form on the practice website). Addressing patients’ lack of certainty that online requests would be responded to was key.

The scheme aimed to encourage all patients, including vulnerable and marginalised patients, to be confident to choose online methods to request consultations, where appropriate, and ensure access is more inclusive.

Participating practices received a toolkit with different digital and printed resources, such as posters, leaflets, website template copy, and digital screen animation, to support communication between staff and patients about GP access.  The toolkit also included guidance for staff on how to use the materials.

Results showed that prior being exposed to the messages and communications from the toolkit materials, only 14% of patients were aware they could request a consultation using a secure form online, yet 53% were open to using that method.

After being exposed to the messages about access contained in the toolkit, 22% of patients said the materials had given them ‘confidence in trying new ways of contacting their GP practice.’ Meanwhile, 64% said they felt confident their practice would respond in an appropriate way.

For some practices, the toolkit helped foster a more positive attitude about online consultation requests and reduced patient complaints about access, it was found.

In its evaluation report of the pilot, NHS England said that, in general, smaller practices benefited most from the toolkit, as did those that were in the earlier stages of their ‘digital journey’.

Word of mouth was especially effective at driving awareness and encouraging patients to try out new ways of accessing care.

It also added that practice managers, in particular, welcomed the support of practical resources that they could quickly implement, noting that they had a key role in encouraging clinical and non-clinical staff to be on board with promoting online consultation systems, and ensuring communication with patients is consistent.

Key barriers or challenges identified by the pilot scheme included staff shortages and increased workload, uncertainty from some practices about being able to cope with online requests and  ‘sensitivity’ to messaging about GP access.

‘Some patients perceived communication about access routes to be pushing them in a particular direction – for example, away from face-to-face care – to benefit the practice, rather than them,’ the evaluation said.

Other key ‘learnings’ from the pilot, included:

  • A need to change the ‘habit’ of accessing the practice by telephone. This would require specific initiatives that go beyond communication.
  • The importance of consistent language when talking about online requests as well GP access more generally
  • Explaining the benefits of online consultation systems to patients is easier when the whole practice team is on board with using them
  • Practices that have a higher online consultation request rate could offer mentoring to practices still adapting.

Some GP practice staff in the pilot also suggested that a national campaign promoting the changes in  GP access to the general public would be beneficial, and support practices’ own communications efforts.