Combining tech with the human touch to help patients

With online consultations on the increase, many patients are opting for the human touch to complement technology 

As demand for health services continues to rise and time-pressured doctors attempt to treat their patients as efficiently as possible, it’s not surprising that digital technology has come to the fore to solve many of the problems.

We know how important retaining a human element in delivering primary care is and recognise that no amount of technology can or should replace an in-person consultation

However, studies indicate that patients still value the human touch. A Populous survey of more than 2,000 people in the UK for Doctaly, a face-to-face private doctor service, showed that ideally 79 per cent want to see their GP in person rather than virtually or online.

But a growing number of digital healthcare providers are integrating the human element into their offerings to provide the best of both worlds.

Digital tech helping patients self-diagnose, with assistance

MedicSpot offers private online video consultations with GPs, but crucially these are carried out in pharmacies.

As a result, the patient has the ability to conduct self-examinations using equipment such as a stethoscope, blood pressure machine, thermometer and pulse oximeter under the instruction of the doctor, with a pharmacist always on hand if they require assistance.

Chief executive Dr Zubair Ahmed, who is a GP, says this remote examination capability improves the safety and accuracy of digital healthcare while providing patients with convenience and accessibility.

“We know how important retaining a human element in delivering primary care is and recognise that no amount of technology can or should replace an in-person consultation with your own GP,” he says. “With our hybrid model, we hope to give patients the benefits of digital healthcare while also ensuring patients can have human interaction with a healthcare professional.”

The same technology could soon be used by paramedics and nurses on home visits, beaming in a doctor or even a specialist when needed. A pilot study is beginning in six months.

“Doctors waste a lot of time travelling while on home visits and many paramedics take patients into hospital when they might not have needed to go,” says Dr Ahmed. “This will greatly improve the care unwell patients can receive while at home.”

Digital technology helping patients consult the right person

Other providers say it’s not the case that the human element has been removed by the digital revolution. But, more importantly, high-tech algorithms can direct patients for face-to-face care with the right healthcare professional, which is not always the GP.

For example, DoctorLink works like a virtual health assistant that can be accessed through a smartphone. A digital triage tool enables patients to access the help they need, whether that is referral to a nurse or specialist, advice from a pharmacist or GP appointment.

Andrew Gardner, chief executive of DoctorLink, says: “What we’re doing doesn’t dehumanise healthcare at all. We help patients get to see the right people. The focus of our technology is reducing stress and pressure on the people that work in the NHS so they can work more effectively, rather than trying to replace them.”

New prescriptions systems save time and increase satisfaction 

One area of healthcare that has mushroomed online is prescription services and these too are having to incorporate the human element. While some, like Chemist Click, have a chatbot that is manned by pharmacists so patients can address any concerns, others have gone further after realising human engagement is the vital issue when it comes to client satisfaction.

Healthera has developed a pharmacy app that enables patients to order prescriptions and get reminders for medication as well as to message their local pharmacist directly with queries.

Launched in 2017, initial evaluations show patients are more satisfied with the service and it saves the pharmacist time; on average, ten minutes are saved per prescription compared with manual management.

It has also reduced phone calls from patients to the pharmacists about minor matters. Instead when they do call or visit the pharmacist, they have deeper, more engaged interactions, according to chief executive Quintus Liu, which can further reduce pressure on GPs.

Digital health company Now Healthcare also supplies repeat prescriptions, via an app and delivered free to patients’ homes, but offers video consultations with their own GP as well as the opportunity to talk to a pharmacist.

Sandra Gidley, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board, says: “This model is an encouraging combination of the use of technology, while maintaining the interpersonal link between patient and pharmacist.”

Revolutionary steps being taken in prevention

In the area of prevention, a mixture of technology and the human element is also proving successful. In the United States, a number of hospitals are using a technology called EmmiPrevent to telephone patients with an “Alexa of healthcare”. The solution, by Wolters Kluwer, makes it possible to reach many more patients than would be possible if nurses or hospital staff were diverted from other duties to make calls for hours.

In one example, interactive voice calls asked 4,774 women in Greater Greensboro, North Carolina whether they had been given a mammogram recently, offering them the opportunity to book one though a “real” person at the doctor’s office. Some 120 days after the call, 32 per cent of women, who interacted with the Emmi automated call, had a documented mammogram.

It is this consistent engagement and the combination of automated systems working with healthcare professionals that makes the difference and improves health outcomes, according to Dr Denise Basow, chief executive of Wolters Kluwer’s Clinical Effectiveness Business Unit.

“It gives patients the confidence and ability to successfully manage their health at home,” she says. “Emmi provides the technology to deliver this level of engagement at a scale which hospital staff simply can’t match.”