Patients in Shropshire are struggling to arrange GP appointments while remote meetings threaten to ‘shut out’ the elderly and those lacking technical skills, a health watchdog has found.
Healthwatch Shropshire has made a series of recommendations to health and social care services in the county after a survey on the impact of the pandemic revealed a string of concerns.
During the Covid outbreak, more face-to-face consultations were replaced by telephone and video calls in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus, although health bosses made assurances they would not disappear completely.
Two in five people who completed the survey said their healthcare had been affected by the pandemic.
The group asked for feedback on remote appointments and the findings have been revealed in a new report to Shropshire Council’s health and wellbeing board, which meets next week.
There were a number of concerns about how the move had affected elderly patients, as well as those with autism, anxiety and hearing problems.
“When the country went into lockdown the need to quickly move towards ‘virtual’ appointments became one way that health and social care services could continue to try to meet the needs of the population,” the report said.
“For example, all GP practices moved to offering phone, video or online appointments as a way of triaging patients and making sure only those patients who needed to be seen face-to-face would come into the practice.
“However it was also acknowledged that at this time, in this rural county with an ageing population, not everyone has reliable access to the internet and a mobile phone signal and many people do not have the necessary technology (e.g. a smart phone) or want to use it.
“Despite this the NHS Long Term Plan and local plan means there is pressure to continue with the ‘digital first’ approach as we move out of the Covid-19 restrictions.”
Some positives to remote appointments were noted, including the ability to avoid long journeys, although there were concerns about getting through on the phone, receptionists being seen as ‘gate keepers’ and a lack of confidence that conditions could be correctly diagnosed.
An Age UK volunteer said many elderly people managing alone were unable to use email or websites and struggled to get through on the phone.
Another respondent said: “I don’t like the idea of telephone and online appointments as I feel it shuts out the elderly patients.
“I have a neighbour who is 92 and she is too afraid to phone the doctor and have an appointment over the telephone so if she gets ill then she has isolated herself from the doctor.”
Another patient, who struggled to make an appointment, said: “The receptionist said that they would get the doctor to call me back. I had to phone again three times as I heard nothing, and the doctor still wouldn’t speak to me. The next day I had to call an ambulance.”
Healthwatch Shropshire has made a number of recommendations to health and social care services, including to inform the public that remote appointments are being used to triage patients and make sure face-to-face appointments are carried out where necessary.
Another recommendation says there should be clear instructions about how to set up and use the software needed to access video appointments and electronic consultations, while professionals should also be trained on how to manage meetings.