Infrastructure > Devices

The doctor will speak to you now: improving communications in healthcare

Published 26 November 2017

Paul Clarke, UK manager at 3CX and Dr Mitul Patel, a senior doctor in Leeds, discuss the communications challenge facing GPs’ surgeries


Technology is transforming healthcare – from allowing patients to inform themselves about their ailment and potential treatment options, to booking appointments online and even holding  consultations via video call . But what of the GPs – the backbone of the UK’s health service? Do they have the same opportunity to embrace technology, or are things still stuck at the level of SMS? 

Please hold while I connect you

Being unable to contact the local doctor’s surgery to get an appointment is a common complaint of patients. In fact, a recent survey showed 28% of patients  find it difficult to contact their GP surgery by phone . To further compound the issue, many surgeries operate a ‘call on the day’ policy – booking only a few appointments in advance and leaving the rest at the mercy of the phone system, as everyone tries to get through as soon as the surgery opens to get a much coveted appointment. 

This struggle to contact a doctor can also have a negative impact on surgeries struggling to retain patients, and stay open. With changing regulations allowing patients to register with a doctor outside of their ‘practice area’, surgeries can be faced with the dilemma of not having enough patients to remain viable, with some patients having nowhere else to go.

It is clear that the health service needs to focus on communicating with patients, with many venting their frustrations on public platforms or moving practices, and others heading straight to A&E  to see a doctor – putting strain on the system and, again, bypassing GPs. 

But in order to reduce this strain, and modernise the NHS, GP surgeries need to ensure that their communications systems are able to handle the increasing numbers of patients trying to get test results, appointments, or prescriptions.

How can I help you today?

In this instance, it is important to remember individual GP surgeries are run more like a small businesses rather than a branch of the wider, nationwide NHS. Compared to the NHS as a whole, or larger organisations such as trusts and individual hospitals, GPs have much less purchasing power. This isn’t only due to a vastly smaller operating budget, but also the inability to use the economies of scale a larger organisation can bring to bear when purchasing and negotiating. Similarly, an individual GP surgery is unlikely to have a highly trained procurement office whose sole role is to get the best possible price.

As such, there are three things that surgeries need to do to ensure patients are able to contact them when they are needed, in line with compliance standards set by the NHS, and without breaking the bank.

  • The communications system used needs to be cost effective, comprehensive and most of all, usable. If an individual surgery has an IT team at all, it will be smaller, and less technically skilled, than that employed by NHS trusts or major hospitals. Most likely, there will either be a part-time support contractor, or the surgery itself will have to implement and manage its own communications. There certainly won’t be an opportunity to piggy-back off a wider, integrated NHS network. For instance, if a GP decides their existing communications aren’t up to scratch, they must be able to upgrade it themselves. Any communications solution the GP chooses needs to be low-cost, not only to buy, but to implement, manage and support. The simpler and more user-friendly the system is, and so the less need there is for skilled management, the better.
  • GPs need to be contactable anywhere. They could be on call, working out of hours or at the surgery, but they still need to be able to speak to patients and colleagues. This means that the system needs to be flexible, allowing GPs to receive calls on a mobile device as well as a landline. As with any system that is too important to fail, simplicity is key: rather than patients having to remember multiple numbers, or relying on a permanent staff to transfer calls as appropriate, the same number should connect a caller with the surgery or the on-duty doctor, as appropriate for the time. For patients, this means knowing they’ll be put through to the GP when they need them, without having to fight through complex menus or remember multiple numbers.
  • Communication should follow compliance. Given the nature of the industry, healthcare workers need to be able to provide evidence of the actions they have taken and the advice they have given at every stage of their interactions with a patient. This is as true when a patient first calls a local surgery seeking an appointment as it is when they are undergoing major surgery at a hospital – the healthcare organisation has to be certain that the patient has been given the correct advice, that they have been dealt with in the correct way, and that any further actions have been clearly explained. Being able to track, record and store all interactions should be a basic feature of a GP’s communications system.

Please collect your prescription on the way out

While the future of healthcare may be Skyping a doctor or sending images of symptoms over WhatsApp to a professional for a quick diagnosis, GPs’ surgeries need to hone their day-to-day communications before they’re expected to make these technological leaps. Amid the regular news of  closing GP surgeries , clinics need to make sure they continue raising their standards. In order to retain patients and funding, and to keep serving the community, surgeries need to provide the service expected from 2017’s connected patient. 

Paul Clarke is UK Manager at 3CX and Dr Mitul Patel is a senior doctor at Vesper Road Surgery in Leeds


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