NHS England’s medical director of primary care has said we “must keep” some of the digital services put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking during her closing keynote at Virtual Summer School Dr Nikki Kanani said the digital shift during the crisis was “one of the best things that’s happened”.

She added that continuing to use digital services would allow more flexibility for the primary care workforce and patients, as well as providing an opportunity to engage patients who may previously have struggled to access GP services.

“We must keep some of the great stuff that has been achieved the remote triage and the remote care where it is appropriate is exactly right,” she said.

“I do miss my patients and I do miss the ability to have that conversation face-to-face, but if we can get the balance right we will have some capacity to work a bit more deeply with digitally excluded communities and engage patients who wouldn’t have otherwise been.”

Highlighting the work of a GP surgery in Peterborough, Dr Kanani spoke of their use of a digital translation system that provided a way for the areas Polish population to engage in their care in ways they hadn’t been able to before.

During the pandemic face-to-face GP appointments dropped from 71% to 25%, telephone consultations rose from 14% in February to 48% in May, and video consultations became available in 99% of practices, Dr Kanani said.

“Up until now we have been able to offer ways of working that don’t often reflect what your real life feels like,” she said.

“We want to build a way of offering care for our patients but have that flexibility and agility to work from different places at different times.

“What we’ve been able to do now is offer a way of working that offers that flexibility and that choice to patients and staff. A big part of the job we have to do now is show staff they are valued by saying ‘you can work in a way that works for you’.”

Looking to the future of NHS primary care services, Dr Kanani emphasised the importance of health systems collaborating with patients and clinicians to design integrated care pathways; digital products that meet nationally developed standards to enable effective integration; and support for health systems and local leaders in implementing digital products.

“It has been an absolutely rapid journey… but if we really do work together and work across systems we are going to phenomenally change care for the better for our patients,” she added.

Earlier today, the Virtual Summer School heard from Professor Keith McNeil, CCIO of Queensland Health, who spoke of the importance of high quality data in helping healthcare systems “understand and cope” with complexities.

Attendees also heard from Shayne Hunter, deputy director for general data and digital at New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, who said there was “still a lot more to do” in the countries digital response to coronavirus.

On day one of the Virtual Summer School, attendees heard from the national CIO and CNIO, who said the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of technology.

The Shuri Network also returned for a panel discussion – one year after it was officially launched.