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Patients preferred telephone appointments during pandemic, research suggests

by Caitlin Tilley
18 March 2022

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Just one in 10 patients said they preferred face-to-face GP appointments during the Covid pandemic, and most wanted telephone consultations instead, according to research carried out on behalf of NHS England.

The Improvement Analytics Unit (IAU) – a partnership between NHS England and think-tank the Health Foundation – looked at data from 146 England GP practices using the askmyGP online consultation system between March 2019 and September 2021, from over 7.5 million patient-initiated consultation requests.

During the pandemic, GPs suffered a backlash from the media, Government and NHS England over accusations that general practice was closed and GPs were not seeing patients face-to-face.

GP leaders suggested that NHS England needed to take the research into account and allow practices to decide their own way of working. However, NHS England declined to comment beyond a press release sent out by the IAU on the research findings.

The research found that:

  • Before the pandemic, 30% of patients requests specified a face-to-face consultation, dropping to less than 4% at the beginning of the pandemic. 
  • But by the end of the study period in September 2021, only 10% of patients requests were for face-to-face GP appointments. 
  • Telephone consultations were the most popular option, making up over half (55%) of patient requests in 2020/21.
  • However, less than 1% of patients preferred a video consultation, according to the data.

IAU head at the Health Foundation Arne Wolters said: ‘Our analysis shows that patients often choose remote over face-to-face consultations and that GP practices can mitigate the risk of digital exclusion via a blended approach.’

He said that ‘traditional routes to accessing and delivering care’ had been ‘offered alongside an online option and, in planning care, practices were able to take account of factors such as patients’ age, frequency of use, clinical needs and preferences’, at the studied practices.

And he added: ‘With patient demand at an all-time high due to the care backlog that has built up during the pandemic, digital tools can help practices manage this pressure, enabling them to triage patients to the right person or service and prioritise face to face consultations for those that need them most.’

BMA England GP committee executive officer Dr Richard Van Mellaerts said: ‘This evolution in how we provide care for our patients has attracted significant criticism and in some instances, abuse, which is deeply unfair, and has had a profound effect on many GPs and colleagues.

‘Despite this, this latest analysis suggests that while not suitable for everyone or all conditions, in many cases patients themselves will often prefer and indeed request a remote consultation.’

He added that ‘going forward’, it is ‘crucial that patient choice, clinical need, and staff and practice capacity are at the centre of decisions around how people can interact with their surgery, rather than pressure from politicians or the press’.

This article was initially published on our sister title Pulse.