Patients in Greater Manchester are now benefitting from being able to see their GP through virtual appointments and online consultations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for more digital solutions to allow patients to still access care and support from general practice while maintaining social distancing and shielding.

More than 98 per cent of GP practices across the city-region have now rolled out video consultations and no longer rely on face-to-face appointments to care for their patients while more than 2,300 laptops, 1,720 headsets and 1,500 webcams have been sourced and delivered for use by practices.

In total 97 per cent of practices have also rolled out digital technology to enable online triage. This allows patients to request help from their GP practice by completing a short form online, which is then assessed by a practice clinician to offer the right care, including a telephone or virtual appointment, or referral to other services or self-care.

GPs have described the changes as “transformational” to primary care, helping to solve issues including telephone queues and delays for routine appointments. Practices can also use data to predict when more people are likely to contact them for support, and can plan for this by ensuring the capacity of the team can meet the demand.

Dr Paul Jackson, a GP partner at Boundary House Medical Centre in Sale and Trafford, had already begun to use digital services and felt well prepared to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. The practice had been using online consultation and workflow system askmyGP for 6 months before the pandemic allowing patients to contact them digitally or over the phone.

Dr Jackson said: “We were consistently seeing 75% of people contact us online and 25% over the phone. Both were able to get fast same-day access to a clinician of choice with no more long waits for GPs. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive.”

He added that since the pandemic, contact using the digital route has increased and less people have requested face-to-face appointments, decreasing from 36% to less than 2%. The practice has also supported home working through new kit and virtual team meetings taking place.

“Our clinicians have become more comfortable managing patients remotely and we continued to offer fast same day access. It has energised the workforce, made us more resilient and fit for the future. There are no long waits for primary care contact and most patients get to the right person first time. Clinicians can offer appropriate amounts of time to those that need it.

“We’ve also been able to monitor potential COVID-19 patients by loaning out SATs monitors and daily contact by call, text or video to monitor vital signs. This has proved remarkably successful and we’ve been able to pick up deterioration rapidly.”

A need to ensure no patient is left behind by the digital transformation has also been a priority for primary care to address during the pandemic, including those without access to digital technology.

Guy Lucchi, Digital Innovation Director at Health Innovation Manchester and Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “Primary care across Greater Manchester has quickly adapted to new ways of working and new technology in order to continue providing care for patients during an incredibly challenging time.

“We must now focus on ensuring that the technologies deployed rapidly into the system are fully embedded and can improve outcomes for patients during COVID-19 and beyond.”