In recent years, one of the emerging trends in healthcare is the rise of virtual GPs. Seeking remote medical advice is gradually becoming the new norm for patients due to its convenience and flexibility. Discover more about this innovative healthcare service, what are the benefits and what could be the potential disadvantages of using a virtual GP.
What are Virtual GPs?
Virtual GPs, also known as online or digital GPs, are healthcare professionals who provide primary medical care remotely through digital platforms such as video calls, phone calls or online messaging.
Are virtual GPs the same as NHS GPs?
Virtual GPs are not the same as NHS GPs. While NHS GPs offer their services within the framework of the National Health Service, virtual GPs typically operate independently, offering remote consultations and medical care online or through the phone. Although the NHS offers free virtual GP services to patients in certain London postcodes, virtual GPs are mostly private companies offering their services on a commercial basis to individuals or organisations. This commercial aspect allows Virtual GPs to offer greater accessibility and convenience to patients compared to traditional face-to-face NHS GPs.
What can I use a virtual GP for?
A virtual GP provides a similar service as your traditional GP. They are licenced and fully qualified professionals, so they can provide diagnoses, prescribe medication and facilitate referrals to specialists for further testing and investigations, just like a traditional GP.
How to access a virtual GP
Free NHS virtual GP
As mentioned above, patients living in certain London postcodes can sign up for the free virtual GP service provided by the NHS. However, this service is not available to everyone in the UK, so private virtual GPs are more accessible if you don’t live in London.
Private virtual GP
Most private medical insurance plans now include access to a virtual GP but you can also access private virtual GP services by signing up to one of the many providers available on the market on a Pay As You Go or subscription basis.
It’s important to know, that even if you use a private virtual GP service, you remain registered with your regular NHS GP which you can access as normal.
The benefits of virtual GPs
Virtual GPs can offer several benefits over traditional in-person visits to a clinic or GP practice, such as more convenience, flexibility, comfort, and speed of access.
You often get quick access to appointments
Waiting times for virtual GP appointments are often shorter than for NHS GP appointments. This may result in quicker diagnosis and starting treatment sooner.
You don’t have to travel to get to your appointment
With virtual consultations, patients have access to healthcare from the comfort of their own homes, without the need to physically travel to practice. This can be especially beneficial for individuals who may not be able to easily attend in-person consultations due to factors such as busy lifestyles, mobility issues or illness. This can also mean that you don’t have to pay for any associated costs with travelling to a face-to-face appointment such as transportation costs, parking fees and time off work.
The times of appointments are more flexible
Virtual GPs often operate extended office hours and therefore provide greater accessibility and flexibility with appointments. This means you could book your appointment to suit your commitments, including evening and early-morning slots when GP surgeries may be closed.
You may feel more comfortable discussing sensitive issues remotely
You may feel more comfortable and relaxed discussing sensitive medical issues when you’re not physically in the same room with your doctor. This can lead to better communication and satisfaction.
You can still access your NHS GP
If you prefer a face-to-face appointment or you would simply like another doctor’s opinion, you can still access your NHS GP and attend consultations at your local practice.
Limitations of virtual GPs
Virtual GPs, despite their numerous advantages, also have some limitations.
It’s a paid service which you would normally get for free on the NHS
Virtual GP services often come with a cost, unlike NHS GPs who provide free healthcare services. This can create a barrier for individuals who may not be able to afford these services, limiting their access to more convenient and flexible medical care.
It can’t provide a physical examination
Virtual consultations don’t allow for hands-on examinations which might be required to assess certain conditions accurately. While virtual GPs can provide diagnosis, advice and prescriptions for many conditions, there are certain medical procedures or treatments that may not be possible through remote consultations. In such cases, a referral to a physical healthcare provider or specialist may be necessary.
Access to virtual GP appointments may require a stable internet connection
Accessing virtual GP services requires access to appropriate technology and knowing how to utilise it. This may include a smartphone, a computer with a webcam and a reliable internet connection. Patients who lack access to reliable internet or suitable devices may face challenges in utilising a virtual GP. However, some online GP services may offer telephone appointments which don’t require an internet connection.
Private virtual GPs don’t have access to your medical records
Virtual GPs don’t have access to your NHS medical records, so they rely on you to tell them about your medical history including your prescribed medications to help them provide a safe diagnosis and recommend the correct treatment for you.
It can’t provide emergency care
Virtual GP services are not suitable for medical emergencies or severe cases that require immediate and hands-on medical attention. In such instances, it is crucial to seek urgent care at a physical healthcare facility or call emergency services.
Virtual GPs and health insurance
With virtual GP services becoming more valuable to patients, many health insurance providers offer access to virtual GP services as part of their packages. Aviva, Axa, Bupa, Vitality and Freedom Health Insurance are just some of the health insurance companies offering access to online consultations for their members.
Overall, virtual GP services can be a convenient and efficient way to receive non-emergency medical advice and treatment with quicker access to appointments, no travel requirements, flexible appointment times and increased comfort in discussing sensitive issues remotely.
However, it is important to note that virtual GPs have some disadvantages including the cost factor, the inability to provide physical examinations and the inability to provide emergency care.