Is there a role for virtual GPs in a health and wellbeing strategy?  

Need to know:

  • Virtual GP services enable employees to access medical advice online, via an app or via a telephone service.
  • Virtual GP services registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) are strictly moderated.
  • Virtual GP services can help to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.

Over the past few years, virtual GP services have risen in prominence, with both the NHS and private organisations offering now virtual consultations. In the corporate market, a virtual GP service is just one of the benefits that an employer can incorporate into a health and wellbeing strategy, but with most employees having access to a doctor through their local surgery, what advantages does doing so have for both the employee and employer?

Booking an appointment with a local general practitioner (GP) is not always an easy process; potential waiting times mean employees may sometimes put off getting the medical advice they need rather than having to go through the often time-consuming process of trying to get an appointment. In comparison, a virtual GP service can offer, in some cases, immediate access to medical advice, with other services offering callbacks within a few hours.

Helen Smith, commercial director at Benenden, says: “We know that many [employees] are waiting longer than previously to see their GP with an average time of 13 days to get an appointment. For employees that work a traditional nine-to-five, it’s very hard. The majority of appointments are during the working day. [A virtual GP] allows someone to go into a private office or wherever they feel comfortable doing it to have that discussion, get some advice, get peace of mind and get a prescription. An employee can effectively do everything without having to take any time off work so it’s that extra convenience.”

Integrating into a health and wellbeing strategy

A virtual GP can take a number of forms, typically involving a face-to-face appointment via an app or a website. Other services can include text messaging or a phone call.

The availability of the GP service ranges from during working hours to more advanced services, which can be accessed 24 hours a day services, no matter when an individual is located. Some employers also offer the option for employees to extend the benefit to family members.

Where employers integrate a virtual GP into a health and wellbeing strategy, this can be utilised in conjunction with other benefits such as mental wellbeing initiatives and health screening, depending on the nature of an employee’s condition.

Zoe Eccleston, health and wellbeing consultant at Babylon, says: “It doesn’t matter if [employers] have 16 different suppliers, it’s about tying it all together. It’s also good if [they] have got a couple of things on site such as a physiotherapist, because we know a lot of employees have musculo-skeletal problems due to job-related conditions or doing a lot of sports at the weekend.”

This is why a virtual GP works well alongside physiotherapy and any other benefits that enable staff to access treatment, adds Smith. “It’s all about being able to keep [employees] well and getting them better,” she explains. “A virtual GP service should sit in a health and wellbeing strategy alongside prescription services, a mental wellbeing helpline and physiotherapy; elements of healthcare [employees] can access quickly, where they can be talking to experts and understanding pathways really easily.”

How it works

In England, providers which offer a virtual GP service have the option to be regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), which stipulates its members’ services have to follow strict guidelines. According to the CQC, technological innovation, in particular, is likely to be crucial to ensuring that health and social care services are sustainable in the future. It also ensures that registered providers only employ qualified doctors, commonly NHS trained staff, to administer advice and treatment under its strict regulations.

One of the greatest features of a virtual GP service is that it give employees the flexibility to access medical advice from anywhere in the world, says Nick Jeal, head of corporate marketing at Axa PPP Healthcare. “Employees do not have to take the time off to see their NHS GP and have fast access to clinical guidance,” he says.

“It also removes issues as far as location is concerned. Employees may be travelling a significant distance [between work and home] and [in London] an hour to get to an appointment is commonplace. A [virtual GP service] offers 24-hour care, so the ability to book and to have an instant GP appointment then gives an employee immediate relief and peace of mind. [An employee] can speak to a GP at six o’clock in the morning or even think about coming into work under resolution, then come into the office unhindered. It’s very powerful from that perspective.”

There are also times when employees might just need a repeat prescription, adds Jennie Doyle, head of marketing at Healthshield. “[An employee] can literally pick up the phone and get a prescription delivered to their workplace or home,” she says. “[The virtual GP] can also write an open referral letter if needed and also write a private prescription.”

However, it is not always possible for every diagnosis to be reached remotely and that is when a virtual GP will recommend that the employee sees a doctor in person. “If [a virtual GP] believes [an individual] needs to go for a face-to-face appointment, they will recommend an employee goes to see their NHS doctor, and the notes with be sent directly to the GP,” says Doyle.

In most cases, any treatment administered is reported back to an employee’s NHS GP to ensure medical records are kept up-to-date.

Increasing productivity

The nature of virtual consultations means that an employee may not necessarily have to take time off work to travel and attend an appointment. In cases where they are still well enough to attend work, this means employers will benefit from fewer lost man hours and productivity. In more extreme cases, if an employee puts off getting treated, this could result in longer-term absence, which, in turn, will have a greater impact on an organisation’s productivity.

For example, one financial services organisation, which worked with provider Babylon, saw 3,000 employees, 20% of its workforce register for its virtual GP service. In total the employees had 3,600 consultations with a virtual doctor and estimated the organisation saved 10,000 working hours.

“Every employer’s job is to make money, so if [employers] can increase the productivity of their workforce, that is going to be a benefit,” says Eccleston“It’s cost effective. It will reduce sickness absence, therefore, it reduces cost and increases productivity. It’s a benefit to [employees] to just to have that reassurance. Employees don’t want to stay at home to speak to a GP, they want to have the ability to put their kids on [the phone or on webcam], they don’t want to have to worry about being a good mum or dad, and staying at home. They can [make a virtual GP appointment] when they’re at home with them in the evening, in real time. It’s a mutual benefit”

If an employee can get fast access to healthcare, they are often likely to recover more quickly, adds Jeal. “The challenge in the NHS GP model is that employees have to be physically near their GP to phone up and get an appointment, then there’s the uncertainty of when that appointment is going to take place. From an employer’s perspective and expectations, they’re going to lose an employee for half a day or possibly a full day. The GP consultation may not be a single consultation and follow-ups might be necessary.”

Virtual GP services are about reducing time away from work and absenteeism, adds Doyle. “Employees don’t want to take the time off work but that can essentially make the illness worse, because they’re not being treated for it,” she explains. “Employers haven’t always got the budgets to keep rewarding staff for healthy behaviour so finding other ways to look after the health of employees and make them feel looked after is essential. A virtual GP costs very little in the great scheme of things and can have a positive outcome on [an organisation’s] productivity. ”

Encouraging a healthy workforce

According to the CQC’s The state of care in independent online primary health services report, published in March 2018, men, in particular, often prioritise work over health and, therefore, do not always access care in a timely way. The availability of online care could help to support employees in such circumstances.

“We know employees are taking more interest in their health and employers can be more responsible,” says Doyle. “Organisations have got to look after their employees’ wellbeing so it fits well in terms of the overall wellbeing strategy. It’s about getting employees to look after their health and we’re making that easier and more accessible with 24-hours-a-day access to health advice. So rather than putting it off, employees can just pick up the phone and speak to a GP […] It’s giving them more access.”

For employees who are transitioning from overseas or spend a large amount of time working outside of the UK, virtual GPs are also a way of obtaining trusted medical advice, says Eccleston. “Increasingly employees are global,” he explains. “Employees who have arrived into the UK have access to a GP really easily [with a virtual GP service], or if [an employee] has a job that means they have to go out of the country regularly, they have the ability to speak to a GP if they have any health worries, no matter where they are.”

A place for the NHS

So a virtual GP service is all well and good but could it ever replace a traditional GP practice?

Overall, a virtual GP should be used in tandem with the NHS service and is all about giving employees another option to access medical advice to compliment, rather than replace, the traditional way of visiting a doctor.

It is not the objective to replace an NHS doctor, says Eccleston. “It’s not trying to beat something, it’s trying to offer a different service. In some ways, it reinforces the NHS model but also extends it in ways it hasn’t been able to do in a non-digital old-fashioned model. It means having a [virtual GP] service frees up a GP’s time for cases that need to be seen more urgently, so you’re removing some of the those minor cases from a GP’s workload. If a [virtual] GP is in any way concerned about a condition they will always advise a patient to go to accident and emergency or call an ambulance.”

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Smith adds: “A virtual GP supplements an employee’s NHS GP and they should use it alongside their local doctor. It’s about bringing together the best parts of the system. It works alongside, depending on the situation, local GP’s. They still have a place, a role to play but the service can help the NHS to free up scarce resources.”

Ultimately, incorporating a virtual GP into a health and wellbeing strategy can be mutually advantageous for employees and employers. Such services can be a  quick and efficient way for an employee to obtain medical advice, while unconsciously working towards creating a healthy workforce.