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In an exclusive piece for Digital Health, Visiba Care’s UK manager, Tina Marshall, reflects on last month’s NHS Confederation conference and how digitisation can support existing care provision.

Between 15 to 17 June 2021, the NHS Confederation held its flagship conference bringing together over 5,000 delegates from across the health and care sector to reflect on developments during the pandemic and explore the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

On 16 June, myself; Chief Medical Officer at Visiba Care, Erica Bonns; General Practitioner and Governing Body Member at Lambeth CCG, Dr Martin Godfrey; and Dr Minal Bakhai, National Clinical Director for Digital First Primary Care, were all fortunate enough to speak in front of a number of delegates and innovators from across the health and social care sector.

The conversation highlighted our shared vision of transforming patient pathways and achieving improved patient outcomes, reducing waiting lists and delivering an efficient, high-quality patient and healthcare provider experience.

As Covid-19 continues to place significant pressure on the NHS and staff burnout rates, recent research from Visiba Care has found that 45% of doctors, nurses and allied healthcare professionals are now considering leaving their organisation. This figure is up by 32% compared to the result of the National NHS staff survey taken in November 2020.

Results from the representative survey suggest that this NHS-exodus could be stimmed by more remote working options – with over three quarters of those thinking about leaving their NHS organisation stating a robust digital system, allowing more flexibility, would change their minds.

In recent months, the debate over whether GPs should focus their consultations via face-to-face appointments or adopt a digital first approach has been a hot topic. While many seem to view the adoption of a total triage model as a potential replacement for face-to-face consultations, our webinar panel believed that digitisation of contact with patients gives us an opportunity to rethink how we manage their journey through the health service.

The goal here is to create a more streamlined and patient centric approach, as delays in accessing care can cause harm and distress to patients. Therefore, the quicker people who really need to see a GP can see one, the better. The real contribution technology can make is to speed up getting a patient access to the right person, who might not be a GP or consultant at all but could be a specialist nurse, dietician, physiotherapist, or a mental health nurse. They might even just need advice on self-care, and the sooner the decision is taken about what the patient needs, the better it is for everyone.

Directing patients to more appropriate healthcare professionals ensures that GPs scarce time is kept for the serious, complex, or unknown cases which only they – of all the professionals in the practice – are equipped to deal with. In addition, by improving the appropriate point of contact via automation or digitising parts of the patient pathway (video consultation, chat with a nurse, or self-care advice), we can give valuable time back to the GP and allow more time to those patients who truly need a physical appointment.

Gathering the medical history from a patient prior to a consultation can be done effectively online, either through static forms or through an automated chat. Virtual care platforms like Visiba Care provide such features alongside asynchronous chat/messaging and video features. By combining an initial electronic medical history assessment with asynchronized chat, a practice nurse can engage with several patients in parallel, obtaining additional information quickly and, where appropriate, signposting them to the most appropriate service. This, of course, frees up the surgery phone lines for those patients who are not comfortable using digital technology.

Speaking on the radical impact that digital platforms can have on a GP service, Dr Godfrey spoke on how in Sweden he’s seen practices run ‘video only’ lists of appointments. This is where following an initial assessment, a group of patients suitable for online consultations are seen by a GP working from home. Bringing this kind of improvement to doctors’ work-life balance to the UK might help to stem the current exodus of trained, experienced clinicians from general practice.

The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the adoption of digital health and technology across the NHS and has empowered more individuals to adopt a more proactive digital first approach. But we must now start considering the next steps in digital transformation beyond that of just online consultations and appointments, as online consultations are just one part of a larger, system-wide push for integration and innovation.

The challenge over the next five years will be ensuring that the adoption of virtual care remains even across the general public and healthcare providers as to not leave anyone behind, and in implementing the next realm of healthcare innovation, artificial intelligence.

For more information, please contact Visiba Care and Tina Marshall at tina.marshall@visibacare.com.