Patient safety must be at the heart of digital healthcare

Managing Director at LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor, Andy Sloman talks about the importance of protecting patients online and boosting the reputation of digital healthcare.

Speak to any healthcare professional, from any walk of life and they will tell you that the safety and wellbeing of their patients is their highest priority. It’s what motivates and inspires them to come to work every day. At LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor, we have a team of highly trained GPs and pharmacists who dedicate themselves to providing the treatment and advice that our patients need.

Their passion for the patient isn’t diminished by the fact that we’re an online service where we don’t see our patients face-to-face. They apply the same high clinical standards as they would in any other healthcare setting. They will always do what is right, not what is easiest or most commercially beneficial. It’s this level of professionalism and integrity that was commended by the CQC in their inspection back in 2017.

Digital healthcare is advancing fast and we regularly review and refine how we operate as a business and patient safety is always at the forefront of our minds. It’s a subject that is much debated across the sector and whilst we are trying to build trust and understanding of digital healthcare with our patients and the wider GP community, there are some providers who don’t necessarily share the same priorities.

It’s important to remember that today’s digital healthcare services can only treat a subset of the conditions that a GP can treat in a face to face consultation and it is vitally important that online providers work safely and always put the patient’s interests first. Sometimes, the best and most appropriate course of action is a face-to-face consultation, perhaps with a physical examination. Online consultations can’t replace that yet, but they do have a role to play in triage and referring patients on where appropriate.

The standard model of online retailing should not be applied to digital healthcare services. We run a primary care operation, we’re not selling clothes or groceries. We provide medication, advice and services for people to help them better manage their health, so we should conduct ourselves responsibly and not behave like a shop.

Sadly, it only takes one bad apple to tarnish the reputation of those of us who act responsibly. If there are any avenues open to misuse or abuse, some people will inevitably exploit them, and we see regular reports in the media exposing online services for inappropriate and unsafe practise.

It’s those providers that damage the reputation of the industry and hamper our ability to do even more to tackle the health challenges facing this country. At a time when we need to focus on building trust, in order to achieve our true potential, we must also be wary of the cowboys trying to make a quick buck.

When a patient receives a private online consultation at LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor, they complete an interactive, personalised consultation focussed on their condition which asks for the same information on their health, lifestyle and medicine history as their regular GP would ask. We use advanced technology to support our doctors and pharmacists in deciding the appropriate treatment and advice the patient receives. We are usually able to provide a prescription for the patient along with personalised health or lifestyle advice, but sometimes it is appropriate to refer the patient to their regular GP or to other services who can better help them with their condition

There are times when we are unable to manage a patient online, for example if we identify possible interactions with existing medication, and in this case,  we would always direct them for further support from their GP, pharmacist or other appropriate primary healthcare service.

Our online consultations can also be very effective in helping to identify some underlying health conditions, allowing us to give appropriate advice to the patient. Our expert medical team can identify when further investigation is advised and will always signpost them to the relevant healthcare services.

As professionals with a duty of care to our patients, we can’t allow the convenience of digital services to lead to a lowering of clinical standards. We believe that we have achieved the right balance of improving access to healthcare and making it more convenient for patients, whilst maintaining the same high standards that patients should rightly expect.