Online triage will not solve GP workload pressures, a lead GP warns.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, acknowledges that online triage systems are convenient for some patients, but points to the fact that they do not always reduce GP workload.
Her comments come in a response to a study* in the British Journal of General Practice about online triage systems.
Abi Eccles and colleagues at the University of Warwick studied information from over 5,000 patients using online triage systems. Two-thirds of users were female and almost a quarter were aged between 25 and 34.
Highest levels of use were between 8am and 10am on weekdays (at their highest on Mondays and Tuesdays) and 8pm and 10pm at weekends. The commonest reason for using the service was to enquire about medication, followed by administrative requests and reporting specific symptoms, with skin conditions, ear nose and throat queries and musculoskeletal problems leading the list. Less than one in 20 contacts were for mental health problems.
Many patients found the system convenient and said that it gave them the opportunity to describe their symptoms fully, whilst others were less satisfied, with their views often depending on how easily they can normally get access to their practice, and on the specific problem they are reporting. The authors comment that the pattern of use of online triage is very similar to that of telephone contact with practices and a clear understanding of their needs is required to capture the potential benefits of this technology.
Commenting to the findings, Professor Stokes-Lampard said: "GPs and our teams have always made the most of technology as part of our ongoing commitment to provide the best possible care to patients.
"We were the first NHS sector to implement both electronic patient records and electronic prescribing, and we will continue to explore how using new technology in practice can benefit our patients, including through online consultations, which many practices across the country are already using in some form.
"There's no denying that online triage systems are convenient for some patients, particularly people who are generally fit and well and work full-time, or for people uncertain if their problem is significant or not, but as this study shows, they do not always reduce GP workload – a major pressure currently facing general practice.
"The goal of adopting any new technology is to not only make sure it is safe and effective, but that it actively complements the work we already do. It is good to see robust research emerging about online triage systems in action.”
*Eccles A, Hopper M, Turk A, et al. Patient use of an online triage platform: a mixed-methods retrospective exploration in UK primary care. Br J Gen Pract; 25 March 2019. DOI:10.3399/bjgp19X702197