Switch on your laptop: the virtual doctor will see you now
Virtual consultations aim to reduce appointment waiting times and increase patient care
Prof Ken McDonald leads a virtual consultation.
Stefani Howlett at home with her laptop in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
We have all had moments when we wished we could consult with our doctor from the comfort of our own homes – whether we felt too sick to leave the house or were simply inundated with family and work pressures, having some “face time” with a medical professional without having to visit a clinic sounds like a great idea.
But could it actually work and is this an idea that would ever catch on?
Stefani Howlett is a busy mother of six. Diagnosed with postpartum cardiomyopathy after her youngest baby was born 19 months ago, she needs to keep in regular contact with medics to ensure her condition is kept stable. (Postpartum Cardiomyopathy is an uncommon disorder associated with pregnancy in which the heart dilates and weakens, leading to symptoms of heart failure.)
Going to and from hospital appointments can be an arduous task with several children and a baby in tow, so the Dublin woman was delighted to test the new virtual consultation service being pioneered by the heart failure units at St Vincent’s and St Michael’s Hospitals.
“I had my first virtual appointment on Friday, June 26th, after downloading an app called Zoom which facilitated the consultation,” she says.
“A time was scheduled for a ‘Face Time’ chat between myself, Prof Ken McDonald and a heart failure clinic nurse called Bronagh, and when the call came through I was able to see and talk to both of them.
“I thought it was a great service. I felt very comfortable with it and the consultation went really well. I really think it is a good idea because it was so much easier than having to get a babysitter as I find it difficult to bring the baby to appointments because he can be very hard work sometimes.
Prof Ken McDonald is a consultant cardiologist at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. He explains how the new technology works and how it will be of benefit to medics and patients alike. “Virtual consultations are a means of eHealth communications that provide more flexible interaction between GPs, patients and specialty units using a modern web-conference platform called Zoom,” he says.
“It allows the rapid distribution of personalised healthcare to the patients, while ensuring they get the expertise of doctors and nurses as close to home as possible.”
As well as patients being able to discuss their problems with professionals, it also allows GPs to benefit from advice given by experts in a particular field.
“At each clinic the IT system allows interaction with up to 25 GPs,” says McDonald. “The discussion on a specific patient problem is, therefore, listened to by a wider group of practitioners which means that GPs can identify solutions to problems their patients are having by listening to the cases presented by other GPs.
“They can also learn about the most up-to-date techniques for managing heart failure directly from specialists. And together, GPs and the specialist team can discuss cases online and develop consensus management plans based on specialist expertise as well as accessing specialist investigations rapidly.
“Currently the service facilitates the discussion of up to eight cases every hour between the GP and specialist compared with the average four per hour in a traditional setting. As the specialist and the GP utilise their expertise collaboratively to determine the optimal personalised management plan for each patient, we believe patient cases are dealt with more efficiently as the process creates a virtual community of care for the patient.”
McDonald says this specialist consultation service will help solve Ireland’s current outpatient crisis, end the “needless” travelling to and from hospitals and reduce waiting lists. “With the average age of a heart-failure patient being 75 years old, the travel aspect can be very difficult for both the patient and their families,” he says.
“So the impact of virtual consultation would be to reduce waiting times by in excess of 50 per cent. For example, cardiology waiting time in St Vincent’s Hospital would reduce from six months to approximately two months.”