Medical consultations, like many other services, have migrated online due to the social distancing policies of the COVID-19 pandemic. But will it continue?

Are Virtual Consultations the Future of Medical Care?

Virtual consultations are seen by many as the natural evolution of medical care. That said, they’re still new and can cause misdiagnosis of certain conditions that are difficult to diagnose over the internet.

For doctors, this is adding extra pressure where there really shouldn’t be any. For patients, it’s putting them at risk of having to seek a medical or GP negligence compensation claim. That being said, it’s certainly not all bad…

In order to fully assess the growth and trajectory of virtual consultations, we need to look at how they grew during the pandemic. What were their strengths and weaknesses? Finally, will they continue to be used after the pandemic?

How Did Virtual Consultations Become so Widespread?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic ever graced us with its presence, seeing a doctor online was a rare occurrence in most countries. In fact, most people had never considered booking an appointment online, with in-person being the only option until now.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, virtual consultations were necessary in order to allow healthcare services to operate under social distancing restrictions. People had to use virtual consultations for the first time and, in just one year, they have become commonplace.

During the first quarter of the pandemic, it’s estimated that virtual consultations increased by 50 percent, and have seen a month-on-month growth since then. This growth was made possible through:

  • People buying webcams and other technology to make working from home, and video chatting with friends and family, more possible.
  • Concerns over going to the doctors and contracting coronavirus from the people there.
  • The number of people able to visit a doctor’s surgery was restricted meaning there were fewer appointments available for those who wanted to see a doctor in-person.

After 12-months of the pandemic, virtual consultations are so commonplace that the medical profession is doing everything it can to make them as effective as in-person ones.

Are Virtual Consultations Effective Enough to Replace In-Person Consultations?

In order to fully address this question, we need to assess the drawbacks and benefits of virtual consultations.

What are the problems with virtual consultations?

Because every situation is different, it’s unlikely that virtual consultations will completely outstrip in-person ones. It took the COVID-19 pandemic for healthcare providers to try them out, but it doesn’t mean they’re suitable for everything.

Virtual consultations fall short in a number of ways, including:

  • They don’t allow crucial social interaction, which is important for a lot of patients who don’t have anyone else to speak to.
  • They don’t work well for people who have sensory/learning disabilities who may find it difficult to interact in a virtual capacity.
  • They can make the diagnosis of certain health conditions difficult.
  • They may not be useful for medical conditions that are at a later stage or are chronic and require long-term management.

There is also a concern about data security, as many hospitals aren’t up to scratch on their cyber-security. Also, older people who aren’t tech-savvy enough to handle a virtual consultation without help from younger relatives might struggle.

On the clinician side, some doctors and clinical staff have raised concerns over the impact of virtual consultations on their workload and their effect on the length, workflow, and structure of their day.

However, many of these issues are solvable in time and are just the growing pains of new technology being largely rolled out over the course of a year instead of slowly over a long period of time.

What are the benefits of virtual consultations?

The benefits of virtual consultations are far-reaching and could be the saving grace of this technology’s future in medical care. The main benefits include:

  • Allowing carers to consult with doctors for specific groups, such as women and the unemployed, to provide an alternative route to care and improve follow-up rates.
  • Enabling some patients to express themselves more openly on health issues.
  • Allowing patients to virtually attend appointments and free up carers who would otherwise have to take them to the doctor physically.
  • Reducing patients’ time off work to attend appointments.
  • Widening access to those who live in geographically remote areas, are housebound, or can’t afford to pay for transport to the doctor’s surgery.

These benefits have resulted in many patients who have used the service reporting greater satisfaction, convenience, and timeliness of care.

As with the drawbacks, it’s not only the patients who are affected. In a clinical setting, virtual consultations provide shared learning opportunities and greater joint working across professional groups.

This can reduce the number of referrals to specialists in different departments, especially if they’re able to jump on a virtual consultation with your doctor.

So, what is the future of virtual consultations?

Having looked at how virtual consultations have become prevalent during the pandemic, and the effectiveness of them in replacing in-person consultations, it’s safe to say there is a place for them in the future of medical care.

What the future of this technology boils down to is there are situations where it is beneficial and situations where it makes things more complicated. It is up to medical professionals to use virtual consultations only where it makes more sense to do so.

This means changing up the way medical practitioners currently work by melding virtual consultations into their everyday workflow. It’s near impossible to do this in a year. So, as time goes on, virtual consultations will continue to grow and evolve until they are an everyday part of medical care.

Therefore, the answer to the question ‘Are virtual consultations the future of medical care?’ is no, but they will definitely have a significant role to play.