A bid to save nearly £3 billion by slashing appointments with a doctor and treating patients via computer will put lives at risk, ministers were warned.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is planning a technological revolution that could spell the end of the traditional doctor’s surgery.
A new system of “virtual clinics” is being planned in which GPs connect with patients via iPads and Skype, an idea that NHS bosses are importing from India.
The reforms would save £2.9billion “almost immediately” and improve the lives of most patients, for example by avoiding the need to find child care during appointments, Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said last week.
However, critics are concerned the initiative would create a two-tier NHS in which the less technologically able, particularly the elderly, would be left behind.
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham called the plan “dangerous”, while Age UK said cutting the number of personal appointments would erode the vital trust between doctor and patient.
The ideas, contained in a Health Department report called Digital First, include arming community nurses with iPads in rural areas and making more use of Skype video calling between GPs and patients. There will be more online assessments “augmented” with video calls.
Mobile phone “apps” will be used to access lab reports and health records and negative test results will be sent by text messages rather than delivered in person. Mr Hunt, who made a fortune by creating an internet company, believes that while mobile broadband technology is revolutionising most walks of life, there is a problem once people encounter the relatively antiquated systems of the NHS.
The Government is trying to fill a £20billion NHS funding gap and health chiefs want to reduce “needless” appointments that clog up staff time.
Patients would be encouraged not to attend GPs’ surgeries, firstly by telephone assessments and then by video links. NHS bosses have been examining practices in India where video-conferencing has proved successful with some patients.
In a Westminster debate last week, Dr Poulter said 15 million people with long-term conditions accounted for 70 per cent of all in-patient beds. “Many such hospital stays could be avoided through better management, including the better use of mobile technologies, to prevent people from becoming so unwell in the first place that they need to be admitted to hospital.
“We need to harness and better utilise more modern types of technology such as telehealth and mobile technology to support people better in their own homes and to drive down the cost of care.
“About one-third of patients do not necessarily need a face-to-face GP appointment.” In a statement to the Sunday Express, he stated: “It is important to stress that patients who are unwell and need to see their GP will still always have quality face-to-face time with them.
“The Government also recognises that not everyone, particularly frail older people, will have easy access to the internet.”
However, Age UK’s boss Michelle Mitchell warned: “Many people of all ages still prefer human contact.
“It also gives the medical professional the chance to recognise health issues that may not be obvious from a distance.”
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “The telehealth agenda must be driven by a desire to improve clinical outcomes and patient care, not the Government’s plans to save £20billion.”
Mr Burnham warned: “Older people who don’t have access to the internet will lose out.”
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