Judith Kleine Holthause, the report’s lead author, said:”Despite its clinical shortcomings, the use of the internet and call centres for diagnosing swine flu and distributing medication demonstrates that remote diagnosis can be an efficient way of dealing with certain conditions.”
The Future Foundation forecasts that 37% of people will be using the web for medical information by 2020 (up from 14% in 2009) and that a variety of social and economic factors will lead to a substantial market for online diagnosis and prescriptions in the future.
The report, commissioned by Lloydspharmacy, coincides with the roll-out of ‘virtual GPs’ into 300 of the chain’s pharmacies. Lloydspharmacy has pioneered online diagnosis and prescription.
Now the chain has innovated again by allowing customers to walk into a pharmacy, consult with a doctor from a computer terminal and walk out with their prescriptions a few minutes later.
Andy Murdock, pharmacy relations and governance director of Lloydspharmacy, said: “The face to face consultation will remain at the heart of primary care, but for an increasing array of conditions, remote services provide a viable alternative.
“Right now these include lifestyle conditions such as impotence and hair loss, embarrassing conditions such as STIs, contraception and certain minor ailments such as cystitis. But the list could expand considerably in the future.”
However the report’s authors warn that regulation will be critical if privately run diagnosis and prescription services are to grow. At present only one online doctor service is registered with the Care Quality Commission explicitly to manage patients remotely. That service, Dr Thom, also provides the GP component of the Lloydspharmacy service.
There is no question that consumers are receptive to the concept. Forty eight per cent of respondents to a poll conducted for the Future Foundation said they were interested in online diagnosis and 56% said they were interested in online prescriptions.
Holthaus added: “In certain areas consumers welcome regulation. Concerns about counterfeit medicines, bogus doctors and commercial motivations will inevitably act as a brake on consumer confidence in remote diagnosis services. We believe that more regulation, monitoring and control will be crucial to the further development of this market.
“There are strong arguments for why the NHS might embrace remote diagnosis as a complementary method to ensure sufficient delivery of satisfactory health care in the future. If regulated and monitored appropriately remote diagnoses and prescriptions could benefit the healthcare system in similar ways as remote services have helped the banking system.”