University of Warwick Medical School has recently published a finding saying that patients are using online consultations in similar ways as they would arrange for consultation via traditional mean. The retrospective study, featured on the British Journal of General Practice, aimed to look at the patterns-of-use and patients’ experiences of using an online triage system. 

Data from more than 5000 patients across nine general practices in the UK were obtained via one of the main online consultation platforms. Patients’ user habits, reasons for use, and their user experiences were quantitatively captured over a period of 10 weeks. Of which, researchers found that despite the 24/7 availability of the online service, patients still make their enquiries during the busiest hours of the clinic. That being 8 am to 10 am on weekdays and 8 pm to 10 pm on weekends. 

The study also found that most patients made enquiries related to medication, specific symptom or administrations. Those who stated their reasons for use said that they were attracted by the platform’s convenience and younger patients tend to be the ones who are likely to use the online platform. 

Set a clear rationale 

Supervising author Dr. Helen Atherton commented on the University of Warwick website, that the results indicate patients’ behavior do not easily change with the introduction of online consultation platform. As such, medical institutions have to be clear of their rationale behind setting up the platform and what they will like healthcare professionals and patients to achieve, to avoid the mismatch between expectation and reality. 

Dr. Atherton also noted that while most online consultation platforms have a uniform approach, patients are not. Often, patients’ satisfaction with their consultation can be rather context specific. Thus, online consultation may not be suitable for all patients because not all medical conditions and enquiries could be handled by the exact same approach. 

Dr. Atherton’s recommendation is to encourage younger patients or those who are comfortable with using the online platform to use it while freeing up other services for other patients. Likewise, the online platform can be used to deal with administrative issues so that phone lines are more open to others. Patients need to be informed about how they can benefit most from the technology. 

To cater to respective needs 

Ian Jackson, Medical Director and Clinical Safety Officer at Refero, a digital service provider, said in a separate article that there are many forms of digital communications at the moment. If an institution made use of the online platform, messaging, video conference on top of teleconsultation at the same time, silos may be created. Therefore, Jackson suggested assessing the existing patient pool and services before adopting a particular set up. 

Likewise, the adopted model should be flexible enough to cater to the needs of healthcare professionals. For example, unlike General Practitioners (GP), a psychotherapist may need to have simultaneous link to multiple patients, shall he/she will like to conduct remote group session. 

Also, the remote consultation model should render confidence back to healthcare professionals, reassuring them that they are communicating with the intended patients, even if they have not met them before. This means security measures such as secure login or linking to one’s identification are essential from the very beginning. Ultimately, the whole system should be transparent and work towards the benefits of providing better and more efficient care. 

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in current affair, culture and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.