Matt Hancock is facing a backlash from patient and medical groups after declaring that all consultations should be conducted virtually unless there was a “compelling clinical reason not to”.
During a speech in London on Thursday, the Health Secretary hailed a new era of “Zoom medicine” in which face-to-face meetings with doctors will be replaced by video link or phone.
Pointing to the operational changes introduced during the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Hancock said there was a need for “bureaucracy-busting” in the NHS, with virtual consultations freeing up doctors’ time for those most in need.
He added that while there would always be a system for people who could not “log on”, it would be wrong to “patronise older people by saying they don’t do tech.”
However, Rachel Power, the chief executive of the Patients Association, claimed that moving consultations online “by default appears to be based on no evidence whatsoever of what works for patients.”
“Patients have put up with a great deal over recent months to help the NHS cope with an unprecedented emergency – often at considerable cost to their own health and wellbeing. This cannot be allowed to become the new normal,” she continued.
There are also concerns that a shift to online will disproportionately impact elderly patients with limited access to technology, as well as reducing the chances of spotting the early signs of disease or illness compared with physical consultations.
Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said that while the union had long argued for greater use of technology, the “suggestion that all appointments going forward will be remote by default must be approached with caution.”
He added: “Physical appointments will always be a vital part of general practice, and they continue to be necessary for many patients and the management of specific conditions, and we must not lose sight of that.”
Echoing their concerns, Edel Harris, chief executive of the charity Mencap, said the shift could “seriously exacerbate the health inequalities that already exist for people with a learning disability.”
“The UK’s 1.5 million people with a learning disability should be offered face-to-face consultations automatically – without needing to ask for them,” she added.
However, in his address to the Royal College of Physicians, Mr Hancock said there had been dramatic changes to how the NHS works as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and it could not be allowed to “fall back into bad old habits.”
“The crisis has shown that patients and clinicians alike, not just the young, want to use technology,” he added. “The feedback from this transformation has been hugely positive.
“So from now on, all consultations should be teleconsultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to,” he added.
“Of course if there is an emergency, the NHS will be waiting and ready to see you in person just as it always has been.
“But if they are able to, patients should get in contact first via the web or by calling in advance. That way care is easier to manage and the NHS can deliver a much better service.
“Not only will it make life quicker and easier for patients but free up clinicians to concentrate on what really matters.”