The thought of using a phone or tablet to see a local GP may have appeared completely alien for some people pre-pandemic, but that has all changed as demand for virtual GP services has soared over recent years.
And the demand shows no signs of abating as NHS waiting lists continue to rise to record levels.
While demand has increased across among all age groups, employers are also being forced to take the issue more seriously as rising long-term sick numbers contribute towards productivity problems for UK plc.
But those wishing to use a virtual GP may need to get used to the idea of increasingly funding their own healthcare in future – as insurers may begin to limit use of what is an expensive benefit to provide.
Most used service
Data released by AIG Life revealed that by the end of April customers had sought 53,000 GP appointments through its Smart Health since its August 2019 launch, nearly half of customers required prescriptions, specialist referrals and sick notes, while a fifth of users were uninsured children and young people.
“It’s always been the most used service, but we expected that because we researched it before we launched our proposition,” Alison Esson, propositions manager at AIG Life, told Health & Protection.
“It continues to go up. It’s used across all ages, across all product types, so it’s a very levelling service.
“It really does help people. The feedback we get is how fantastic it is to get hold of a doctor so quickly.”
Families struggling to get GP appointments
Emma Astley, owner of CoverMyBubble, told Health & Protection she is a big believer in added benefits and is a vocal advocate them on social media.
“On our first calls we have conversations about these benefits,” she said.
“Clients will choose to have the GP services included with their options and will pay the £4 difference to have this within their policy.
“Many families are struggling with their surgeries and wait hours to try and grab an appointment for them or their children, so knowing they have this service is very valuable for families right now.
“Our clients are struggling to get an appointment for their surgery and call hundreds of times only to find that there are no appointments left for that day, but they know they can use the GP services for themselves, partner, or children as its such an easy and quick service to use.”
Cutting back or charging
But evolution and increasing use of these services is not without cost.
Paul Gambon, sales and marketing director at Medicash, warned many providers offer virtual GP services as a free and unlimited service which can give the impression these services are inexpensive to offer.
“The reality is that there is a significant cost to this service and the dramatic adoption of virtual GPs will likely mean that changes to the provision are likely to happen going forward,” Gambon noted.
“It’s likely that with these risks to the overall sustainability of cover, we expect providers will begin looking to move away from the free, unlimited virtual GP services initiated during the pandemic in favour of offering a fixed number of sessions per customer.
“In some cases, providers may even look to remove the service entirely from certain plans as they seek to recoup the costs of rising inflation or reduce the prevalence of similar benefits overlapping.”
Gen Z and middle aged driving demand
While record wait times for NHS treatment is a factor in the increasing popularity of virtual GPs, age demographics may also be at play, as Dr Suba M, medical director at Aviva, explained.
“Two factors are at play in driving demand for digital healthcare,” Dr Suba M said.
“The first obviously being the pressures on our traditional public healthcare system which had propelled individuals to seek other options to access health advice.
“The second is society’s generally more improved digital literacy and the influx of younger adults who are digital natives into the workplace. This trend won’t reverse, digital healthcare will be the norm going forward.”
But demand is also rising among older age groups.
Christina McAfee, clinical product manager at Simplyhealth, said the cash plan provider had seen a significant increase in demand for its virtual GP service, with millennials driving demand.
“In the 12 months up to May 23 we’ve seen a 37% increase in demand for the virtual GP service,” McAfee added.
“A third of users of our GP service are aged 26-35 years old – so the millennial generation really seem to be driving the demand to a certain extent.”
And Jonathan Patrick, managing director at Teladoc Health UK, contended demand is set to increase among “tech-savvy middle-agers” as they age.
“Who wants to go and wait in a GP surgery anymore?” he said.
“If I can see a GP remotely and get a prescription sent to me or my local pharmacy, that’s great. If the GP decides I need to be seen in person, at least I know the trip is necessary.
“I’m not just talking about private GP services here, this is going to be the model in the NHS as well.
“As we see increased advances and innovation like wearables and improved health apps on our phones, we’ll find that virtual GP results are better and offer more accessible care for everyone.”
Business case for employers is clear
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the number of people economically inactive due to long term sickness has soared with a considerable knock-on effect for employers and the nation’s economy and wellbeing.
As a result, according to Steve Ellis, associate director at Prosperis, demand for virtual GPs remains high among employers, with many leaders requesting access for employees as they value the service.
The business case for offering employees access to such a service is clear, according to Tina Jennings, director at Fidelis.
“Companies need employees back to work as quickly as possible, so having access to an immediate service ensures that the employee can get the support they need, and the company can manage the absence more effectively,” Jennings said.
“We hear individual clients tell stories of how they cannot get access to their GP.
“They tell us about their frustrations of having to wait a very long time for the phone to be answered by a receptionist. Even then they find it hard to get an appointment within the week or at all.
“It’s clear that GP demand continues to outstrip capacity.”
Steve Casey, marketing director at Square Health, told Health & Protection he believed the key elements of virtual GP services are ease of access and the services being truly connected.
“I cannot see a rebound of physical in-person services but the two conduits working together,” Casey said. “The challenges facing the provision of healthcare would mean I think that the blended option is the way forward.”
Aviva’s Dr Suba M agreed that she had noted increased demand for such a blended approach.
“Another trend is the demand for more integration where the same solution can be accessed either in a physical or digital interaction, noting of course that certain health solutions are better served in a physical space,” she explained.
“Consumers increasingly would like dynamic choice and the relevant information to make a decision that best serves their own needs at a specific moment in time.
“Responsive, customer-centric and hyper-personalised health services will be the future.”
However Dan Crook, protection sales director at Canada Life, maintains more could be done in adapting technology to better support the needs of employees.
“One area specifically is the role of technology and AI, and how this can support better health outcomes,” Crook said.
“We’re already seeing AI supporting dentists with the new Toothfairy support service, resulting in 70% of dental consultations taking place on the app and being dealt with virtually.”
Teledoc’s Patrick agreed, and said the biggest impact on these services was “without a doubt” going to be patient-facing AI.
“At the moment use of AI is restricted to a few niche cases, such as examining scans for cancer,” Patrick said.
“As more of the AI language models evolve we are expecting to see better symptom checking before a patient engages with a GP or other physician and, ultimately, new pathways in pharmacy and the community as patients take more control of their own health through interaction with AI.
“For example, making more pharmacy products available either without prescription or with an ‘AI prescription’ will result in more accessible care and treatment for patients.”
System is broken
Ultimately though, in a world in which NHS waiting lists and long term sick numbers continue to move only in one direction, people in the UK may just have to get used to the idea of paying for their own healthcare, said Isaac Feiner, owner of Lifepoint Healthcare.
“My personal opinion is that people should be ready to reach into their pocket and pay for private GP services,” Feiner said.
“I do this myself – running a business and leading a busy life, I simply do not have time to wait around just because its free. There are many people like me and there is now an abundance of private GP service all over.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – the UK public needs to get used to the idea of self-funding things from time to time. Enough with the reliance on free. The system is somewhat broken, so this is one of the ways it will be alleviated.”