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It seems that everywhere we turn, new tech innovations hailed as ‘disruptors’, are revolutionising the way that products and services are delivered to consumers.

Healthcare is no exception.

New, private sector technology is challenging our traditional way of accessing GP services, fuelling the ongoing debate about the NHS and its relationship with the private sector. Whilst these services are helping to improve access to care for today’s time-poor, busy lifestyles, there are cautionary notes from commentators on other far-reaching implications for the NHS.

24/7 GP access

There is no doubt that pressure on NHS GP surgeries has been steadily increasing. Patients are reporting frustration with trying to get appointments, particularly at convenient, out of hours times.

In response, private online GP providers offering digital app-based services have launched, aimed at improving access to GPs without compromising the quality of care.

Over 35 such services offer 24/7 GP appointments via phone or video, online prescription services, artificial intelligence-led diagnosis, all for a small, affordable fee.

For the busy professional, used to access services via their smartphone, this is a natural progression and a good solution to an irritating issue.

These apps seem to be offering a win-win solution – relieving pressure on over-stretched GP surgeries at the same time as dramatically reducing waiting times to see a GP.

But there are other implications.

Funding, AI diagnosis and staffing

GP surgeries rely on signing a mix of patients to secure the right amount of funding. Complex, elderly and frequent use patients need to be balanced with a high number of younger, healthier patients.

Traditional GP surgeries have witnessed an exodus of younger, fitter patients who have moved to app-based services, and have been left with a higher proportion of complex patients. As a result, many are struggling to survive financially.

There have also been concerns about the quality of care provided. Many digital services use AI-powered chatbots to diagnose patient conditions. But a significant number of GPs worry that AI is limited and unable to pick up on patient behaviour and nuances in descriptions of their symptoms that only a trained human can identify.

Staffing of GP surgeries is another concern. GPs are allocating time to working for app-based services, which they can do at any time, from any location, and are therefore reducing time working for the NHS. In a service already woefully short-staffed, this is exacerbating the NHS’s need for qualified GPs.

A happy partnership?

The NHS is seen as a bureaucratic, change-resistant organisation. However, it is implementing a range of wide-reaching digital projects and initiatives which will transform the way it cares for our nation’s health as part of a long term delivery plan.

As with disruptive technologies in other sectors, the NHS will have to adapt and adjust to cope with the introduction of new digital players in the healthcare arena. At the same time, new, disrupting private sector businesses will need to continue evolving products and services to reassure patients over the quality of care. And, find a way of co-existing with traditional GP surgeries rather than sapping them of funds and doctors.

The responsibility lies with both to find a way to work in tandem for the common goal of improving access to and quality of GP care, ensuring the NHS continues to be internationally recognised as the world-leading healthcare service that it is.


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