Use of a primary care online consultation system, by whom, when and why: evaluation of a pilot observational study in 36 general practices in South West England

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Abstract

Objectives: Evaluation of a pilot study of an online consultation system in primary care. We describe who used the system, when and why, and the NHS costs associated with its use.

Design: 15-month observational study.

Setting: Primary Care practices in South West England.

Results: 36 General Practices covering 396,828 patients took part in the pilot. The online consultation website was viewed 35,981 times over the pilot period (mean 9.11 visits per 1000 patients per month). 7,472 patients went on to complete an ‘e-consultation’ (mean 2.00 online consultations per 1000 patients per month). E-consultations were mainly performed on weekdays and during normal working hours. Patient records (n=485) were abstracted for eight practices and showed that women were more likely to use e-consultations than men (64.7% versus 35.3%) and users had a median age of 39 years (IQR 30-50). The most common reason for an e-consultation was an administrative request (e.g. test results, letters, repeat prescriptions (22.5%)) followed by infections/immunological issues (14.4%). The majority of patients (65.2%) received a response within two days. The most common outcome was a face-to-face (38%) or telephone consultation (32%). The former were more often needed for patients consulting about new conditions (OR 1.56, 95%CI 1.05, 2.27, p=0.049). The average cost of a practice’s response to an e-consultation was £36.28, primarily triage time, and resulting face-to-face/telephone consultations needed.

Conclusions: Use of e-consultations is very low, particularly at weekends. Unless this can be improved, any impact on staff workload and patient waiting times is likely to be negligible. It is possible that use of e-consultations increases primary care workload and costs. Online consultation systems could be developed to improve efficiency both for staff and patients. These findings have implications for software developers as well as primary care services and policymakers who are considering investing in online consultation systems.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere016901
Number of pages10
JournalBMJ Open
Volume7
Issue number11
Early online date22 Nov 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2017

Structured keywords

  • Bristol Population Health Science Institute

Keywords

  • general practice
  • primary care
  • online consultations
  • e-consultations
  • evaluation

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