Published Thu, 2012-07-05 12:50; updated 4 years ago.

More than half of patients would Skype their GP if the option was available, new research by digital service NHS local* has revealed.

This way of consulting the doctor could be "invaluable" for housebound patients, said the Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Professor Clare Gerada.

The survey, which showed more than 40 per cent of people have difficulties booking an appointment, revealed that although less than one per cent of people have used video calling to "see" their doctor, 52 per cent would do so if they could. Only 14 per cent said they didn’t think there were any benefits in doing so.

When asked why they would like to be able to use video calling to see their GP, respondents said:

  • As someone who is disabled and often gets stressed by leaving the house, this would be fab! It would also save me the £8 round trip in a taxi every time I have to go.
  • I am a full-time, live-in carer. It is difficult and expensive to find replacement care to attend medical appointments.  
  • People would be much more comfortable discussing their problems within the comfort and privacy of their own home. If my surgery offered this, I would be a lot less likely to put off discussing my problems.
  • My mother will not attend surgery or hospital. New technologies provide the possibility of preventative as opposed to emergency healthcare.
  • I think it would also be good if you’re not feeling well enough to go to the surgery, but feel you are not ill enough to call the GP out.
  • I would use video calling to avoid dragging infectious children to a surgery.
  • It would save me having to sit around because the appointments are running over.
  • It would be easier to work round work commitments.
  • I could talk to my GP via Skype from anywhere in the country/world.

Nearly 20 per cent of respondents said a Skype appointment with their doctor would be more private, while 14 per cent said it would make it easier to discuss problems.

"Bring it on!" said one. "All aspects of it are really beneficial."

The research coincides with a growing number of private health and medical practitioners using new technology, including Skype and text-messaging, to advise and diagnose. These include clinics, a handful of GPs, and Lloyds Pharmacy.

Seeing patients virtually is also a device used on TV programmes, such as Channel 4 show Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic, (pictured above) which shows doctors advising people in their homes using video over the internet.

In its newly-published Information Strategy, the Department for Health has promised that medical records will be available online by 2015 and online access to letters, test results, personal care plans and needs assessments will be introduced in time – saving the NHS nearly £2.5 million over ten years.

Prof Gerada commented: "We are certain we'll see a leap in the wider use of technology in general practice over the coming years, and not just telephone consultations, which have moved into the mainstream of daily GP triage over the last ten years: we are already seeing many patients booking consultations online and receiving text reminders for appointments, registering online and ordering repeat prescriptions remotely.

"We may see a lot more self-monitoring of diagnosed conditions by patients in their own homes, perhaps using small systems to take temperatures, monitor heart-rate and feed information automatically back to the surgery for the scrutiny of GPs and their teams. Indeed, some companies are already piloting these systems within communities."

Technology was particularly beneficial for GPs and patients in rural areas – and patients and carers unable to leave their homes, she added.

"Several teams are already trialling remote access programmes, which may eventually move more into mainstream primary care – this technology is certainly a regular feature at telehealth conferences. Systems such as Skype may also have a place, and could prove invaluable for carers and patients who are housebound, provided access and ability do not create additional barriers to treatment."

Dr Dawn Harper, presenter of Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic, who also works as a GP in Gloucestershire, said of the NHS local survey results: "As a practising GP, I am all too aware of how difficult it can be sometimes to get an appointment. There will always be some patients that we have to see face-to-face, but I certainly do a lot more phone calls and email consultations than I used to and I can see Skype being a useful addition to our armoury."

The survey also unearthed some opposition to using new technology to consult GPs. Concerns centred on the numbers of people without internet access or IT know-how, technical hiccups and worries about Skype not being secure.

"What happens to people who haven't got technology? Do they lose out?” asked one respondent. "My own computer is not suitable for video calling: who is going to pay for the update of equipment? Or are the 'have nots' to be treated as second-class citizens?"

Another said: "Sadly, I don't think you can better seeing you GP (in person), bearing in mind most GPs need to examine their patients – something you can't do via an instant message. It's an innovative idea but simply not practical."

"Don't waste money on this," said another. "Get the GPs trained in cooperation with patients, carers and immediate referral in mental health cases. These are being blocked by ignorant GPs unaware of current recommendations and practice."

Prof Gerada said new technology would never replace the benefits of a face-to-face surgery consultation.

"Technology has an important place in helping to monitor conditions and alleviate immediate concerns, but should never replace the consultation," she commented. "In fact, digital health works best once there is a trusting relationship built up between doctor and their patient – a relationship built up over many face-to-face consultations."

*NHS local was founded in 2010 by NHS West Midlands. It aims to use digital tools to transform healthcare.

** The survey was conducted by NHS local in June 2012 and involved 328 respondents.