In Brief

NHS to launch ‘virtual’ A&E

Fears of ‘creeping privatisation’ as Birmingham launches digital consultation

The NHS is to launch a “virtual A&E” service, encouraging millions of patients to use technology to assess how ill they are in a bid to reduce casualty and outpatient appointments.

In a “ground-breaking” trial, says The Guardian, patients in Birmingham will be advised to use digital chat services, online symptom checkers and video consultations with doctors and nurses to help relieve the “unsustainable” pressure on services. Some of the chat services will be live but many will be automated.

Patients will also be able to speak to their consultant by phone to avoid attending hospital for an outpatient appointment.

“We think that we can get 70% of our two million outpatient appointments on to this way of doing things within two to three years,” said Dr David Rosser, chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham trust. “The way patients access and receive healthcare in Birmingham will be unrecognisable in five to ten years’ time, with technology playing a hugely enhanced role.”

According to research by Ipsos Mori for the Health Foundation, around two-thirds of the public are happy to have a video consultation with their own GP rather than a face-to-face appointment.

However, says The Guardian, “expansion of online interaction [will] raise fears that the loss of face-to-face contact with health professionals could compromise patient safety”.

The proposals could also add to fears of a “creeping privatisation of NHS care”, the paper says, because they will be delivered in conjunction with a private firm, Babylon Health. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is an “avid advocate” of using digital technology in healthcare. 

Earlier this week, family doctors said GP consultations need to be extended from 10 to 15 minutes to give patients more time to discuss their health. Family doctors have expressed growing frustration at not being able to allocate patients sufficient time as the load on them is increased by a growing and ageing population.

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