Today, the UK’s National Health Service announced that it was launching a new service where patients can speak to a physician through their mobile devices via video call or text. The service, called GP At Hand is available countrywide, and as is the case with most NHS services, is free at the point of delivery.
And I’m not even slightly surprised. Telemedicine is a growing sector in the UK, with services like the Manchester-based PushDoctor becoming increasingly popular. These work on the same lines, but you’re typically charged either a subscription fee, or by the minute. Most services charge you for private prescriptions and sick notes, too.
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I’ve used PushDoctor previously — largely because I was too lazy to make an appointment with my registered GP, and partly because I wanted something now. The on-demand economy has spoiled me, and if I can order a pizza or a taxi with the press of a button, why not see a physician?
At first, I was sceptical. But overall, I found the service to be pretty good. I spoke to a UK-based doctor, didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to make a same-day appointment, and because I was paying for the doctor’s time, I didn’t feel like I had to rush.
I can’t remember how much it cost me. I can’t find the invoice, but I think it was roughly £70 (near $100). I remember I was able to reduce this by signing up to the company’s monthly premium subscription service. Was it pricey? Sure. The biggest with the current incarnation of telemedicine in the UK is that it’s the preserve of those with means, and I’m conscious of the fact that I’m very privileged that I was able to use such a service.
But I’m also confident that telemedicine can thrive in the NHS, especially as it faces the combined challenges of a rapidly aging population, and a government that seems to be unwilling to pump any additional cash into the system.
Let’s start with the obvious: telemedicine can mitigate the huge cost associated with missed appointments. Figuring out how many GPs appointments are missed each year is a tricky business, as nobody actually keeps track. Most estimates I’ve read are between 12 and 14 million, each with an average time of ten minutes. That’s an astonishing amount of cash poured down the drain by those who lack the basic politeness to cancel appointments they know they can’t make.
With an on-demand telemedicine system, that’s not an issue. The doctor would just speak to the next patient waiting in the queue. Easy.
With PushDoctor, the physician I spoke to was satting in his home office, earning a bit of extra cash on the side. It’s not clear if GP At Hand works like this. If it does though, I can see some pretty major advantages for the NHS, since they won’t have to deal with the fixed costs of running a physical practice, like rent or utilities. If the NHS’ experiment with telemedicine takes off and is expanded, these are savings that will be felt at scale.
I also feel as though the move towards a less intimidating form of consultation will make healthcare more accessible to those suffering from acute mental health issues. If you’re chronically anxious or depressed, going to a conventional doctor’s surgery can feel like an insurmountable effort. I’m speaking from experience here. But talking to a doctor through an iPhone? That’s an entirely different ball game.
It goes without saying that this will never completely replace conventional GP surgeries. For a lot of medical complaints, telemedicine simply isn’t an option. Can you imagine trying to stitch your own gashed knee, as a doctor gives you feedback through a webcam? No thanks.
And it’s worth remembering that loads of people won’t use this. Earlier today, I wrote about a village in the UK where the Internet is so bad, they literally made an effigy of a BT Openreach van and set it ablaze on a bonfire. They won’t be using this service.
And it goes without saying that there’s a gaping digital divide between young people and old. Per the Office for National Statistics, almost all 16 to 24 year-olds are Internet users, while only 38.7 percent of those over 75 are recent Internet users. It’s those users, who may suffer from mobility issues, who would particularly benefit from GP at Hand. The good news is that Internet penetration in the aged is growing, and 74.1 percent of those between 65 and 75 are users.
It’ll be interesting to see how GP At Hand ultimately turns out. If you’re based in the UK and curious, you can try it here.