Online triage takes centre stage in the age of hybrid healthcare

The healthcare sector has traditionally lagged behind others when it comes to allowing technology to challenge traditional processes. In few areas has this been more evident than triage, the process of assessing, prioritising and directing patients to the right healthcare. It is one of the most important components of any well-run hospital or GP surgery and healthcare providers have long been reticent to change the way it is done.

However, triage for primary healthcare is a highly inefficient and slow process. Before accessing any specialist care or treatment, patients have to fix an appointment with a GP, which could often be days or weeks in advance. The GP then makes an assessment and starts guiding the patient through the healthcare system depending on their condition.

This archaic process creates a major bottleneck in the system, particular as data compiled from surgeries that use the Doctorlink app has shown almost a third of patients, who seek a GP appointment, should be directed to a more appropriate form of care, such as looking after the condition themselves or going to a pharmacy. This equates to around 99 million GP appointments that could be freed up each year if there was effective prescreening. With an average appointment costing the NHS about £30, this would result in an annual saving of around £3 billion.

“The main reason this inefficient and costly system has remained in place for so long is because we have always felt it necessary to accept a certain amount of inefficiency in the system to ensure no, or at least as few as possible, mistakes are made,” says Rupert Spiegelberg, chief executive of healthtech firm Doctorlink. “This assumption is based on the premise that humans are the only option we have to prescreen patients before they enter the system. However, that is no longer the case, making the assumption wrong.

“Technology drives efficiencies in all industries, improves throughput and enables a better customer experience. The same opportunities are available in healthcare, with online triage technologies now just as good as medical professionals at initial screening of patients and equally as safe too. Yet, despite the huge advantages provided to patients, including 24/7 access and instant response times, and the improved demand management and prioritisation offered to healthcare systems, resistance has remained.”

Online triage technologies are now just as good as medical professionals at initial screening of patients and equally as safe too

That resistance has endured in recent years even as patients have increasingly embraced digital healthcare services. More than three quarters of healthcare patients requested repeat prescriptions electronically in 2019, up from two-thirds in 2016. And more than half of patients used remote or telemonitoring devices to record their own health indicators in 2019, compared to 39 per cent in 2016, according to a study by Accenture.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated this trend, with the huge spike in demand for screening practically forcing healthcare providers to embrace online triage technology. In April, every patient in the UK was triaged before a GP appointment, compared to two in five in 2019, and only 7 per cent of appointments were face to face. The success of this approach, in conjunction with the existing system, showed healthcare providers how it powers a better experience without compromising safety.

“Imagine a cohort of a hundred people displaying COVID-19 symptoms,” says Spiegelberg. “Some, let’s say twenty, do not have the virus, but simply a cold or type of flu, forty may have mild symptoms that could be dealt with by some good advice and self-care, ten have no condition at all and the remaining twenty are at risk of developing quite acute symptoms.

Doctorlink graph

“In a traditional model, they would all book a GP appointment, which would have to be spread over a long period. The GP then has to assess each one, despite over half not needing their attention. An online triage tool can direct everyone to the right place without GP intervention, ensuring those with genuinely concerning symptoms get prioritised faster, while the remainder stay at home with their anxieties alleviated.”

As the UK’s leading health technology solutions provider, Doctorlink has provided more than 62 million health assessments in recent years. The company’s solutions are used in 1,500 GP clinics across the country, covering more than 12 million NHS patients. It also includes a health risk assessment tool used by health insurance providers, as well as telemedicine solution tool called Video consultation, for which there was a huge spike in demand after COVID-19 hit.

Doctorlink is also launching an online triage platform for A&E units to help reduce unnecessary visits and bring down waiting times at hospitals and walk-in centres that receive around 25 million patients a year, with each visit costing on average about £150 and 88 per cent experience waiting times of four hours or less. Some 16 per cent of emergency department attendances between 2015 and 2017 were defined as unnecessary, according to a 2018 National Institute for Health Research study.

Built by doctors, healthcare experts and technology visionaries, daily usage of its app grew almost tenfold this April compared with April last year, as COVID-19 eliminated many face-to-face meetings.

“Taking a sample of ten GP clinics that use its technology, Doctorlink found that those with between ten thousand and thirty thousand patients have been able to drive GP and admin time-savings equivalent to up to £270,000; this figure depends on practice size, patient registrations and app usage. The average total cost of appointments saved at those ten sample surgeries neared £1 million. The solutions can similarly help health insurers as it offers their members instant access to healthcare, reducing the cost of unnecessary claims, increasing customers’ satisfaction and retention rate,” Zainab Ibrahim, head of marketing at Doctorlink, concludes.

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Patients can download the app if their own GP surgery is a partner of Doctorlink – the app is available on Apple and Google Play.