Murray Ellender, a GP and chief executive of eConsult, discusses how to quickly establish digital triage to ensure maximum efficiency within GP surgeries
According to a BMA study conducted last year, 53% of GPs were experiencing a work-related mental health problem such as burnout, anxiety, stress, depression, or emotional distress.
And over a third - 38% - said their condition had worsened over the course of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Since last spring the already-great pressure on GPs has been exacerbated by the need to juggle their regular day-to-day responsibilities with distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to their local communities, and all with crucial social-distancing measures in mind.
And, while there is no single silver bullet that can solve the problem of exhausted, over-worked GPs; the rapid adoption of digital tools, particularly digital triage, is one approach surgeries are increasingly taking in order to balance workloads and create much-needed efficiencies.
While some staff will be excited about implementing new tools to improve the lives of everyone working in the surgery; others will be less enthusiastic
GP, Murray Ellender, and A&E doctor, Mark Harmon, run eConsult to help GPs properly and safely triage their patients.
It is currently live in 3,263 GP practices across the UK, and the ETriage offering is used in eight A&E departments.
Digital triage enables patients to submit symptoms or requests to their own GP electronically and offers around-the-clock NHS self help information, signposting to services and a digital symptom checker.
And, while it has been steadily growing in popularity over the past few years; adoption has accelerated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
eConsult went from 130,000 online consultations across 1,200 practices in February 2020 to 1,022,000 consultations across 3,200 practices in the same month the following year.
And over the year it supported 7.5 million online consultations, compared to 731,000 in 2019.
“For GPs surgeries that are yet to adopt digital triage, the idea can appear daunting,” said Ellender.
“But, by following five simple steps, rolling it out can be a quick and pain-free process.
One of the biggest reasons digital triage rollouts don’t deliver value in the first few months, according to Ellender, is that not everyone working in the practice is invested in making it work.
Although just 11% of GPs think ‘digital confidence’ is a problem in their surgery; some people embrace change more readily than others
“While some staff will be excited about implementing new tools to improve the lives of everyone working in the surgery; others will be less enthusiastic”, he warns.
“And, although just 11% of GPs think ‘digital confidence’ is a problem in their surgery; some people embrace change more readily than others.
“It’s important to take the time to make the case for change and reach out to others to learn from their experience.
Not all digital triage tools operate in the same way.
For example, nearly half of GPs (44%) agree that free text boxes alone do not provide an adequate patient history, and yet some digital triage providers only offer this type of service.
Also, it’s vital to ‘obsessively’ read the privacy policies of a proposed provider and play close attention to what staff and patient data they store, how they are currently using it, and how they propose to use it in the future.
“Like any planned shift to the patient experience, keep the community actively informed,” said Ellender.
“Create opportunities for them to ask questions and raise any concerns.
Pay special attention to vulnerable and older patients who might not have the digital devices or fluency to confidently take advantage of the service
“Involve Patient Participation Groups to provide education and guidance and tap into existing communities, on social media, to explain how this new service helps patients as well as the practice.
“And pay special attention to vulnerable and older patients who might not have the digital devices or fluency to confidently take advantage of the service.”
A recent eConsult study revealed over half of GPs (54%) believe implementing new digital services has increased stress levels in their surgery.
The key to avoiding this is a robust onboarding and training programme.
Ellender said: “Prioritise digital providers that will commit to the time and resource to training your staff on how to get the best out of the platform.
“And pro-actively arrange staff workshops, working groups, and forums to ensure clinical and administrative staff can raise issues and discuss problems openly and troubleshoot them together, or in partnership with your digital provider.
“The biggest benefits of digital triage typically materialise once practices have started to convert inbound phone calls into online journeys”, said Ellender.
“Once you launch the service, many patients that could use the service will continue to ring the surgery through force of habit.
“Encourage your reception staff to direct patients to the online tool and briefly explain the functionality and hand out leaflets to promote the service when patients visit the surgery.
“Educate your patients about how this service will mean they have a better experience contacting the practice, and how it will ensure they get the right care, from the right person, as quickly as possible.
“Not every consultation needs to be carried out face to face, especially with social distancing measures in place.”