An official launch event will be held today (11 February) as UCLPartners, an academic health science center based in central London, releases a free digital guide to encourage fellow clinicians on setting up virtual clinics. This new how-to guide, which comes in both print and animated versions, was created together with UK’s National Health Service (NHS) leaders and practitioners from eight NHS Trusts and academic institutions, as well as patient and public representatives.

The guide contains resources for three main areas: developing a non-face-to-face clinic business plan; practical issues and key elements to consider while setting up a new mode of care, and lessons learnt from real-world examples. It is already made available via the UCLPartners’ website.

What is a virtual clinic?

In short, the guide suggested two forms of non-face-to-face clinic: Synchronous, in which clinicians and patients interact in real-time and Asynchronous, whereby clinicians’ and patients’ interactions occur at different times.

For the former, it’s similar to telemedicine as patients are required to make telephone or online booking with the physicians before they can meet virtually at the designated day and time. Besides, Synchronous clinic also demands an effective network connect to facilitate communication and patients have to be digitally literate to get access to the chosen platforms.

For the latter, it permits multi-disciplinary clinic reviews. For example, at the Royal London’s chronic kidney disease virtual clinic, a General Practitioner (GP) could request a secondary care specialist to review a particular patient’s record and advise on appropriate follow-up treatment. These advises could be given to the patient virtually, via the next GP appointment, or a referral visit to the specialist.

Moreover, Asynchronous clinic could also incorporate other online portals or mobile applications, for patients to record and explain their symptoms or discomfort before being accessed by a specialist and be given follow-up instructions shortly after. This mode of non-face-to-face clinic calls for a more integrated IT support and personnel other than GP to have access to patients’ data.

Either all, Steve Shaw, Medical Director for Outpatient Transformation at NHS London feels the new approach will “improve the experiences of both staff and patients” as the number of unnecessary visits and waiting taking place within hospitals are avoided.

Insufficient guidance

According to Digital Health, the NHS wishes to eliminate one-third or more than 30-millions of its annual face-to-face outpatient appointments over the next five years. Virtual clinics are regarded as the pivot in NHS’ effort to minimize unnecessary outpatient visits and to save both time and money.

Nevertheless, as AIMed mentioned earlier, there is an absent of friendly training programs to get clinicians started. For example, in the UK, video conferencing software company StarLeaf had recently sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to 80 National Health Service (NHS) Trusts to find out the popular communication tools used by clinicians and challenges they face while employing these tools in clinical setting.

74% of the Trusts said video conferencing was one of their primary modes of communication and 48% revealed their plans to roll out virtual consultations and appointments through video conferencing in the near future. In spite so, StarLeaf found that 56% of the Trusts do not have training programs in place for staff to learn how to use these systems properly. When staff realized the video conferencing system is too cumbersome for them to use, they will literally forgo that and use other non-formally approved but familiar tools and applications like Whatsapp, to carry on sharing information and communicating with fellow patients.

As such, Professor Milk Roberts, UCLPartners Managing Director and Respiratory Physician believes this new guide, developed “based on the experiences and insights of NHS partners and patients”, will render hands-on support to those who are venturing into setting up virtual clinics. At the same time, it also benefit patients as they do not have to take time off work and make additional arrangements in transport or childcare for their visits to the clinics.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.