Nearly half of online GPs are unsafe, says UK report

Findings published today reveal that standards of care at 43% of non-NHS online GP services in England are below required safety levels.

A report published by the UK’s Care Quality Commission (CQC) today reveals that the quality of online GP services in England remains far below the standard set by NHS GP practices – of which 89% are rated good or outstanding.

Nearly half of online GP firms – many of them providing webcam or Skype appointments in which the doctor tries to make a diagnosis - are not providing safe care, according to the care watchdog.

Safety concerns identified by the CQC included problems with inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics, opioid-based medicines and asthma medication; problems with child safeguarding; and failing to collect patient data or feed it back to patients' NHS GP, the report said. Doctors at one firm had prescribed powerful opioid painkillers to a patient for two years without telling the patient’s regular GP, it said.

Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'It’s absolutely right that the CQC holds organisations that provide online primary care services to the same high standards as any other healthcare provider, to ensure that they are delivering safe, high-quality, and compassionate care for patients - and it’s reassuring to see that a greater proportion are providing safe care than last year.

'But it’s very concerning to see that even now, 43% of online consultation providers have been deemed unsafe in some respect. When our patients’ health is at risk urgent, swift action must be taken to comprehensively address these before the service is rolled out further.’

CQC chief inspector of general practice, Professor Steve Field, meanwhile, said: 'New methods of service delivery that increase access to care and give patients more control over how and when they see a GP have huge potential not only for patients but for the wider health system.

'However, while innovation should be encouraged, it must never come at the expense of quality. As with all healthcare services, patient safety must be at the heart of all decisions around what kind of care is offered and how it is delivered.'

Despite problems with safety, the CQC found that 97% of online services were caring, and 90% were meeting requirements around being responsive.

Findings from the CQC report are based on inspections of 40 online-only providers currently registered with the CQC. The regulator does not currently publish full ratings for these services as it does for NHS providers - but expects to begin doing so from April 2018.

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