Published Mon, 2012-06-11 12:57; updated 35 weeks ago.
Lesley Reynolds Khan is inundated with requests from acne sufferers across the UK wanting advice and help. Most can’t get to her Harley Street Skin Clinic and she can’t visit them, yet she is still able to arrange face-to-face consultations.
That’s because Lesley uses Skype.
The video link consultations enable her to look at patients’ skin and recommend treatments in much the same way as if they were physically sitting in front of her.
Lesley, one of the country’s best-known skincare experts, is one of a growing number of private health and medical practitioners who use new technology, including Skype and text-messaging, to advise and diagnose. Lloyds Pharmacy now offers GP consultations through Skype, charging £20 for a 20-minute slot.
Seeing patients virtually is also a device used on TV programmes: Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic (pictured above) broadcast on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 8pm, shows doctors advising people in their homes using video over the internet.
So if consulting a doctor through via new technology is being done on television and in the private sector, why not in the NHS?
In fact, some GPs are already using Skype to "see" patients, and the Government has made it clear it views new technology as the way of the future for the health service.
Last summer, the NHS’s medical director, Professor Bruce Keogh, said he was working on plans to allow patients to consult doctors online, which would "completely change the way we deliver medicine". This month, the Department of Health published its Information Strategy, which promises that medical records will be available online by 2015 and that online access to letters, test results, personal care plans and needs assessments will be introduced in time. The NHS will be nearly £2.5 billion better off over ten years as a result.
With both the NHS and its patients under more time and financial pressures than ever, it makes sense on several levels to move patients out of GP waiting rooms and into their own sitting rooms.
Using online services to consult with your doctor frees up GPs to see serious cases more quickly. It also cuts travelling and waiting times for patients.
For example, telehealth – remote health monitoring – can be used to send details such as blood pressure, temperature and pulse readings to medical professionals via smart phone apps and text messaging.
Now that about 85 per cent of UK homes have internet access and the same percentage of adults own a mobile phone, remote and virtual health care is becoming increasingly viable. Although many older people don’t use the internet, their children and carers are likely to be web savvy.
"The use of Skype will cause us to reflect on why we don’t routinely plan for these types of consultation, or exploit the potential of text and email for queries and routine communications," says Sophia Christie, former Chief Executive of NHS Birmingham East and North, in a Health Service Journal article.
But Jonathon Tomlinson, a GP in East London, is sceptical. On his "Abetternhs" blog site, he says: "If the business of medicine, and particularly General Practice, was as straightforward as it is so often portrayed, then we GPs would very soon be redundant, superseded by Google doctor and teams of medical technicians in developing countries answering the residual queries with the aid of protocols and search engines.
"The touch of a handshake, the contact of human flesh is about more than a diagnosis. Physical connection is of profound importance. A physician’s touch is a vital part of how we communicate with our patients. It conveys kindness, compassion, confidence, professionalism and responsibility long before organs are palpated."
In response, Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, observes: "I use Skype consultations – it’s a good way of keeping in contact with patients and their relatives. Nothing replaces the gentle hand of a clinician but remote care does have a place."
Do you use new technologies to contact your GP? Would you like to be able to or do you think it's a bad idea? Take part in NHS local's survey Digital Technology in Healthcare.