Why remote GP services are becoming increasingly popular

21 July 2021

With the NHS remaining under significant pressure, the temptation for many of us will still be to suffer in silence with health problems rather than 'bother' our GP, even if that risks storing up long-term consequences. However, the pandemic has also left most of us much more comfortable with using virtual and digital tools, which means insurance-based remote GP services are becoming an increasingly viable, and popular, alternative route to accessing expert medical advice 24/7.

Why remote GP services are an increasingly popular alternative and what to expect?

Irrespective of how the 'great reopening' pans out (and there are suggestions we may be back facing restrictions by the autumn), it is clear the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed many areas of our lives, perhaps permanently.

Two key changes - in fact, interlinked - have been how we use and engage with digital technologies, everything from Zoom through to online retail and paying for things via contactless rather than cash, and how we use and engage with healthcare services.

For many of us, it is now normal, broadly expected even that, if we want to access a GP, our first contact with the surgery will be via an e-consult form, possibly followed by a phone call and, only then, potentially by a face-to-face consultation, and even that may be virtual.

While this has added a degree of flexibility to NHS primary care that often wasn't there pre-pandemic, it is also true that NHS GP services remain stretched and under intense pressure as we look towards the autumn.

The Royal College of General Practitioners, for example, warned in June 2021 that there were simply not enough GPs to meet soaring demand, while the NHS Confederation in July 2021 warned that this, combined with rising staff absence because of sickness or self-isolation, was overwhelming primary care in some parts of the country.

On top of this, throughout the pandemic, there has been a natural reluctance among many people either not to risk catching Covid by going to see their GP or not to 'bother' the hard-pressed NHS while it is managing a global pandemic.

Covid 'silent sufferers'

Such 'silent sufferers' meant that, according to a survey by remote GP service HealthHero, last year more than a third (34%) of UK adults deliberately avoided making an appointment to see their GP.

Nearly half (45%) said they did not want to 'burden' the NHS, 39% deemed their condition was not serious enough to warrant seeing a GP and 32% felt fearful about catching the virus.

Yet, of course, putting things off like this may not, in fact, be a great idea. One of the fallouts we have seen from Covid-19 is the knock-on consequences of people delaying medical attention when they shouldn't have. For example, diagnoses of early-stage cancer fell by a third during the first lockdown and there was even a sharp drop in admissions to hospital for heart attack.

There is, however, an answer here: insurance-based, employer-funded remote GP services.

Such services, while of course not a replacement for NHS primary care, can offer an alternative way for people to access expert GP advice quickly and efficiently. What's more, as we have seen, the fact most of us are now more comfortable and familiar with video 'meetings' is making such remote services an increasingly attractive and viable option.

So, what do you need to know about how such services work? Here are answers to six of the most common questions asked about remote GP services to help you understand them and to get the most from them as a private healthcare benefit.

1. How do I use a remote GP service?

This is an obvious first question. If you need it, you ring or message via the app in the first instance. You'll then speak to a trained operator who will take your details and arrange a time for a GP either to call you back or email a link to allow you to join a video consultation.

Another advantage of most remote GP services is that, unlike a regular NHS practice, it is 24/7, so you can contact it day or night. You can also contact it as often as you need, as there is no limit on phone, video or message consultations.

2. What can I use it for?

The first thing to emphasise here is that a remote GP service is not an emergency service.

Therefore, if you're experiencing potentially life-threatening symptoms such as difficulty breathing, severe chest pain, stroke, severe abdominal pain, bleeding, fits, or someone has lost consciousness, then you need to call 999 immediately for an ambulance. If you do ring your remote GP service and the responder gauges that in fact you need an emergency response, they will direct you to that.

However, for many other symptoms and conditions, a remote GP service will be a convenient and easily accessible option. Essentially, if you'd approach your regular GP about it, then it is probably going to be right for the remote GP too. So, things such as stomach issues, ear nose and throat complaints, dermatological conditions, musculoskeletal aches and pains, urinary problems or second opinions will all fit the bill.

3. Who can use it?

One of the advantages of a remote GP service is that it is available to family members (regardless of whether they are included on your health insurance scheme), which means you can call up if you're worried about, say, your partner or an elderly parent or a child who is unwell, something that can bring real peace of mind.

Where a patient is under the age of 16, the patient/legal guardian must book the appointment on behalf of their family member and must also attend the consultation.

4. Can I get prescriptions through the remote GP?

In short, yes. Where the GP believes it is clinically appropriate to do so, they can issue private prescriptions, either to a nominated pharmacy for collection or delivered to a nominated address.

Do note, however, that, since these are private prescriptions, the pharmacy will charge for the medication and, if delivered, there will be a charge for postage and packaging.

5. What about my existing GP, how does it connect with that?

A remote GP service is very much designed to complement rather than replace an existing NHS GP relationship. So, its services are in addition to anything you also access through your NHS GP and using the service will not in any way affect this relationship or your registration with your existing NHS GP.

All patient data and records will be stored and kept confidential (they will not, for example, be shared with your employer or insurer unless consented to do so). However, they can be shared with your GP, but that will only happen with your explicit consent as the patient.

This may be useful in the event of any follow-up treatment or referral being needed through your regular GP and also simply to keep them in the loop on any changes to your health or medication needs.

6. What happens if I need to be referred on to a specialist?

Should the remote GP feel you would benefit from seeing a consultant or specialist, they can provide you with a private referral letter.

This letter, however, cannot be used to access NHS services in the UK. Such referral letters will be posted or emailed directly to you following the consultation, according to your preference.

Finally, bear in mind that, if you have private medical insurance, you will need to contact your insurer before engaging a consultant or specialist, or accessing any diagnostic or treatment services, unless you are self-funding. The referral letter is not a private medical insurance claims authorisation.

Why a remote GP service can make all the difference

In summary, whatever your health need – whether it is to speak to a GP about something that is niggling or worrying you, just for reassurance, to source a prescription, or because you need a referral on to a specialist – having access to a 24/7, remote GP service through your health insurance can be the answer.

At a time when all these may be a challenge to achieve through the NHS, having this alternative at your fingertips can bring invaluable peace of mind for you and your loved ones.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.