Overloaded GPs forced to limit access to online consulting site

An online consultation platform widely used by GP surgeries and promoted as being available “around the clock” is being turned off by some practices for most of the day because of high demand.

The eConsult platform is used in more than 3,000 GP practices in England, Scotland and Wales to help direct patients to the care they need. The online facility, offered to about 28 million patients, is described in promotional material as “available to use any time, day or night, from any device connected to the internet”.

GPs had said that the platform was adding to their workloads, describing it as an “unlimited portal of demand” that potentially hampered access for other patients. Practices across the country are now limiting access to the platform because demand has been so high.

In September, an estimated 29.2m GP appointments were made across England, according to NHS figures. Last month, the Observer reported that GPs are having to see up to 90 patients a day, and struggling to cope.

eConsult encourages patients to find NHS self-help information, but it is also routinely used to submit medical information to be reviewed by a doctor.

In Merseyside, the Sefton branch of Healthwatch, the consumer champion for health and social care, flagged concerns about the eConsult portal being switched off in a report to Sefton council in October.

It said it had logged on to the eConsult platform at several local practices only to find it was “consistently” turned off.

Healthwatch Sefton stated in its report: “In contacting patients by telephone, patients are often advised to use the online service. Patients who choose to do this, give up their position in the telephone queue, go online, only to find that this service is unavailable.”

The Observer has found other practices telling patients the eConsult platform is available only for limited periods during the day. One practice in Bradford stated last week: “Please note eConsults are only available between 8am-10am.” Many other practices limit the availability of the platform to surgery opening hours, when GPs are available to triage cases.

eConsult Health, the UK company that developed the platform, has championed the use of online consultations, which it says can improve patient access, provide better-targeted care and enable practices to support patients effectively. It recommends that it be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Prof Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Many practices find online triage systems an efficient way of managing demand and ensuring patients receive the most appropriate care for their health needs in a timely way.

“Other practices have reported these systems don’t work as well for them, actually increasing demand, making it more difficult for patients to access care in other ways.

“Some have reported being so inundated with requests, that they struggle to cope with the day-to-day emergency appointment requests coming in via reception – so have opted either not to use these systems or only make them available during certain hours to manage this.”

An eConsult spokesperson said: “eConsult was developed by practising NHS GPs to help assist with the current challenges that practices up and down the country are facing. We encourage our practices to offer the service 24/7 to patients.

“A small number of practices elect to switch off access to eConsult at certain times. This is at the practice discretion, and while we encourage the efficient use of online consultations, we also understand and appreciate first-hand the pressure general practice is currently under.”


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