Matt Hancock today said all NHS consultations should be carried out by phone or video unless there is a good clinical reason not to.
The Health Secretary said in a speech to the Royal College of Physicians that the coronavirus crisis had caused major changes to how the health service works and that some things must not be allowed to go backwards.
He warned against a return to ‘bad habits’ as he formally embraced what he described as ‘Zoom medicine’ in reference to the video software which has become widely used during the pandemic.
He said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be teleconsultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to.
‘Of course if there is an emergency, the NHS will be waiting and ready to see you in person just as it always has been.
‘But if they are able to, patients should get in contact first via the web or by calling in advance.
‘That way care is easier to manage and the NHS can deliver a much better service.
‘Not only will it make life quicker and easier for patients but free up clinicians to concentrate on what really matters.’
Mr Hancock said the shift towards more help online will result in the NHS providing a ‘better service to those who need face-to-face treatment’.
The Health Secretary had earlier guaranteed that people will still be able to see their GP face-to-face in the future when they want to after a major survey showed just one in 10 appointments are being conducted in person.
The survey conducted by the Royal College of GPs found 61 per cent of consultations are currently taking place via phone call while six per cent are being done through text or email and four per cent by online video.
Telephone triage assessments and home visits account for another 18 per cent, meaning that only 11 per cent of consultations led to direct contact at a surgery.
Asked this morning if the survey meant that people will just have to accept virtual appointments in the future, Mr Hancock said: ‘No, it doesn’t. If you want to see your doctor face to face then of course you must still be able to.
‘But many, many people we found preferred doing it either over the phone or on video consultation.
‘Only three per cent of doctors going into this crisis offered video consultations. That is now 98 per cent.
‘The majority of people prefer having that access. Now, of course, you still need to be able to access face to face.
‘This is just one of the changes that has been a positive change from the virus.’
Ahead of his address to the RCP, Mr Hancock said he wanted to focus on how the health service can ‘bottle the things’ it did well during the coronavirus crisis.
‘We know that parts of the NHS performed amazingly,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘It took them nine days to build a hospital when traditionally it takes about nine years.
‘How can we bottle the things that went well? One of the main things is how can we empower people on the frontline to do more with less bureaucracy and rules and more supporting their professional judgement to make the right call.’
Before the pandemic some 75 per cent of GP appointments took place face-to-face.
Some patients now fear their surgery will not reopen fully while health experts point out that virtual appointments can miss symptoms and complex conditions.
In late April – as coronavirus cases tailed off – Mr Hancock had promised to restore regular NHS care.
The Health Secretary today announced major plans for future working, including proposals for doctors to contact patients via WhatsApp.
The survey by the Royal College of GPs involved 859 family doctors and was carried out over the two weeks to last Wednesday.
If the results are a true picture of the UK as a whole it means patients are three times more likely to receive a text or email from their GP than a home visit.
As many as 88 per cent of doctors said their surgery was offering video or online consultations compared with 5 per cent before the pandemic.
Seven in ten said telephone appointments increased their efficiency, rising to 76 per cent when asked about telephone triage.
Professor Martin Marshall, who leads the royal college, said: ‘These changes were made out of necessity – to keep our patients and our teams safe and to help stop the spread of Covid-19 – but there is a compelling case to retain some aspects of the different ways we’ve been working.
‘The pandemic has shown care can be delivered effectively and safely remotely, where appropriate.’