22 Mar 2022

Clinical Negligence

Will Wales’ continuing commitment to remote GP appointments jeopardise patient safety?

Following recent comments from the Welsh health minister that, unlike in England, there will be ‘no rush back’ to face-to-face GP consultations in Wales, our head of clinical negligence, Ken Thomas, expresses concerns over the impact this could have on treatment outcomes.

‘No push’ on face-to-face appointments

Earlier this month, Wales’ health minister, Eluned Morgan, told the BMA Wales LMC conference that there would be ‘no push from this minister, unlike others in England’ on GPs returning to seeing patients face to face if it is not necessary.

According to a report in The Pulse, Ms Morgan stressed that GPs in Wales will not be going back to ‘the old ways of working’, stating that extensive polling had shown that the majority of the population are content with the changes to GP appointments that had been introduced during the pandemic.

Worrying impact of symptoms being missed

While we can all appreciate the many efficiency and environmental benefits to holding more doctor’s appointments online, this lack of face-to-face contact with a medical professional could have a worrying impact on the number of cancers and other devastating illnesses that go undetected.

As a clinical negligence solicitor, I am all too aware of the problems that can lead on from the signs of serious conditions not being spotted early enough. We speak with patients and their families every day about the often devastating consequences of illnesses being wrongly diagnosed or picked up too late, so this apparent commitment to continuing remote GP appointments from the Welsh Government does need to be looked at in the context of clinical governance.

Campaign gathers support

According to NHS figures published in The Daily Mail – whose campaign for more face-to-face appointments in England has received backing from several politicians and charities since it was launched in early 2021 – around 80 per cent of GP appointments were in person before the pandemic began but had gone down to just 55 per cent last year despite restrictions being lifted. In some regions of the UK, just 45 per cent of consultations are now held face to face.

At Harding Evans, we could well envisage receiving increasing enquiries from people claiming that their medical conditions were not diagnosed correctly perhaps, because of the lack of personal, face-to-face access to their GP. Clearly, the NHS has been dealing with a crisis of epic proportions over the last two years and GPs responded as best they could to the challenges they were facing. However, now that we are coming through the other side of the pandemic and are learning as a society to live with the obstacles presented by Covid, could there be increased clinical negligence if there is no return to offering in-person routine appointments?

Are virtual consultations a satisfactory alternative?

In a large number of situations, video or phone appointments will be satisfactory for doctor and patient alike. However, there are many scenarios where virtual consultations are no replacement for seeing a medical professional face-to-face. While many GPs have stated publicly that they prefer to hold remote appointments, arguing that holding phone or video appointments via Skype or Zoom allows them to handle more patients in a typical day, others believe the pendulum has swung too far and that it is vital to get back to pre-pandemic levels of face-to-face appointments so that the chances of a diagnosis being missed are minimised.

It is often the vulnerable or elderly who lose out by not being able to see their family GP as they normally would. Silver Voices, a campaign group for the over-60s, has amassed more than 16,000 signatures for its petition for patients to have a legal right to ‘face-to-face GP appointments’ and charities such as Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society and British Lung Foundation have all expressed concern about virtual GP appointments becoming the norm.

While technology certainly has its benefits for patients with straightforward complaints, over the phone or on a video call, there will often be good clinical reasons why doctor’s surgeries should offer consultations in person as tell-tale symptoms might be missed, that may have otherwise been picked up.

I hope that in the coming months, as things continue to return to normal, the Welsh Government will keep its policy under review so that safety of the patient does not suffer.

Get in touch

If you or a family member have a condition that was misdiagnosed or missed, you may be entitled to compensation. Our friendly, supportive and specialist team of solicitors at Harding Evans have decades of experience in dealing with all sorts of clinical negligence claims, so please get in touch on 01633 244 233 or email hello@hardingevans.com.

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