Dr Mary McCarthy: Hi-tech must benefit all

Advancements in technology for the NHS must benefit the many not the few.

Many in the healthcare world have been awaiting the launch of the government’s ten-year plan for the NHS and if it will deliver the solutions that are so desperately needed.

Since becoming Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock has made clear his intentions make the health service more technologically advanced.

In recent years, general practice has seen a proliferation of apps offering easy access appointments such as Babylon’s GP At Hand app, which the Health Secretary himself has endorsed.

Of course, with these kinds of fast-moving advancements, there will be some teething problems. Indeed, the BMA rightly highlighted that the GP At Hand app, will by default, attract the younger, healthier more tech-savvy generations as opposed to older patients and those will more complex needs. These are the types of patients who will frequently visit their GP, often presenting multiple conditions and most likely to need long consultation times.

While there are some cases that a diagnosis can be established by a chat, quick examination, medical issues in so many cases cannot be instantly established.

While this technology in itself can be very useful for a GP, it would be much better if it was evenly dispersed so all patients and GPs can access and benefit from it. Currently patients who decide to use GP at hand must deregister from their GP. But why is this a problem?

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The income to run a practice, and practices are small businesses, comes from the number of patients registered. If the young, fit and healthy people decide to use an app rather than register with a practice, it means that practices have less money to spend on their surgeries and staff, which results in more practices closing and ending their contracts. It also means that the patients on the list are now largely the older, frailer and sicker people who less likely to use the app in the first instance.

It would be better if the technology available could be used for the many rather than the few.

As well as the bold vision for future advancement of technology, there are existing IT problems that need to be addressed. It would be good, as a starter, if the Health Secretary could ensure adequate broadband in all areas of the country, so that systems would not keep crashing.

Technology is beneficial when it works properly and is integrated correctly, but it is not a substitute for staff on the ground.

The NHS depends on doctors who can build a long-term relationship of trust with a patient and their family, who can monitor the evolving progress of a disease and advise on ways to mitigate its effects. Trusted general practitioners increase vaccination rates in their communities and prevent infectious diseases.

The human touch matters and that is the element that IT, however good and efficient, can never replace. We now have 1,000 fewer GP than we had two years ago, despite the government's promise of an additional 5,000 GPs.

We will not get very far if we don’t get the basics right.

* Dr Mary McCarthy is chair of the local medical committee and represents Shropshire, North Staffordshire and South Staffordshire on the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA. She has worked at Belvidere Surgery in Shrewsbury for more than 20 years.

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