Telehealth alternatives to in-person consultation found lacking in effectiveness: Alt-Con Study (UK)

It needs work and can’t be top down. That’s the conclusion of the Alt-Con Project and its researchers from several UK universities: Warwick, Bristol, Oxford (Nuffield) and Edinburgh. After examining the use of technological alternatives to GP consultations in eight general practices, they found that there were significant barriers to implementation, including insufficient training of non-clinical staff on these approaches’ benefits. The study includes recommendations to guide a more effective implementation.

Practices have been slow to adopt tech alternatives to F2F consults using telephone, email, e-consultation systems, and online video, despite NHS encouragement and programs such as the GP Access Fund. The paradox is that time devoted to non-F2F consults cuts into GPs time seeing live patients in the office.

  • They were adopted without a clear rationale or clearly thinking through cost-benefit for patients and practice staff.
  • Professor Sue Ziebland from Nuffield found that “…practices introduced alternative consultation methods for very different reasons and to solve problems that the practice had identified. These included a failure to be modern, to work more efficiently, to better serve commuters or dispersed populations, and to ensure appointments were available to those who needed them most.”
  • Other reasons: “the acknowledgment that the previous system was broken and unethical in providing a first-come, first-served system that left patients without appointments that they needed, and “the recognition that reception staff and phone lines were overwhelmed.”
  • Noted by other researchers were that ‘one-size-fits-all’, policy and financial incentive driven approaches were “not the best way forward”.

The study looked at GP practices of different sizes (1,938 to 18,353) covering over 85,000 patients, located in different geographic areas of England (6) and Scotland (2) including urban and rural areas, and with a mixture of patients’ socioeconomic status. 45 staff members and 39 patients were interviewed over eight months.

The University of Bristol Centre for Academic Primary Care has published a web page based on the Alt-Con research, offering guidance for GP practices. 

NHS England’s rejoinder: ‘This is a tiny study based on data that is almost two years old. Online consultations offer a convenient alternative to face-to-face appointments and patients are already seeing the benefits.’ Nuffield Department of Primary Care release, British Journal of General Practice, Daily Mail  Hat tip to former TTA Ireland editor Toni Bunting

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