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The doctor would like to actually see you now

What’s happening? UK GPs’ leader Martin Marshall has said doctors have been frustrated by telephone and video appointments during Covid-19 lockdowns because of fears they might miss potential illnesses and are concerned about a deterioration in the patient-doctor relationship. He said while phone and video appointments were useful during the pandemic, some doctors had felt they were delivering care from a call centre. Marshall said one of GPs’ challenges had been appointments with people with complicated health conditions. Personal consultations fell from 70% to 30% during the pandemic, but more than half of appointments are now taking place conventionally. (The Guardian)

Why does this matter? The Covid-19 pandemic has forced implementation of telehealth and virtual care around the world, whether health care professionals liked it or not. This has made digital health care delivery become part of our new normal, especially for non-urgent needs. It’s likely to stay to some degree in the post-pandemic world, although challenges remain.

Nothing like the real thing – Doctors are right to be apprehensive about leaning too heavily on phone or video calls for appointments, as in-person visits can help them better identify symptoms that may not be visible on-screen. Remote appointments could lead to an increase of misdiagnoses and run the risk that patients have to return to doctors time and again to attempt to confirm the cause of their illness and get the right treatment. This creates greater expense and puts added strain on increasingly stretched health care services.

What about Dr Google? Patients are increasingly deciding to look up their symptoms online, something doctors traditionally have been against because they can misdiagnose themselves with an illness more serious than they actually have. New research, however, suggests that “Dr Google” is not as harmful as previously thought and that it can help modestly improve self-diagnosis without raising anxiety levels, especially among those with previous health experience or poor quality of life.

There’s a wealth of health information online, and ome sites are better than others so, rather than warning patients not to investigate their symptoms in this way, perhaps a good middle ground is for doctors to advise them to visit reputable websites that contain high-quality material while surgeries return to more normal operations. The rise of home testing kits could also help with diagnoses.

Beyond the internet – Improving health literacy among the general population can go a long way to enabling people to grasp what their symptoms may indicate and to know when they need medical attention. Smartphones, smartwatches and activity trackers can also help people be more informed about their health issues, including symptoms that they may not even be aware of that potentially require urgent care. But while these consumer devices are useful, doctors fear that inaccuracies could drive patients to draw the wrong conclusions about their symptoms.

The bottom line is that, despite the rise in potential alternatives, doctors want patients to come to them, preferably in-person, to ensure they get a proper diagnosis and timely treatment if needed.

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Nicola Watts

Health Care Curator

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