British hospital to become first in Europe to use Skype for consultations

A hospital in Staffordshire is set to become the first in Europe where doctors consult with their patients via Skype

11:23AM GMT 10 Mar 2014

Managers at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire claim using the online video calling service could reduce outpatient appointments by up to 35 per cent.

They argue that using Skype will help free up consultants’ time and car parking spaces – while also helping patients who are unable to take time off work.

If approved, they would become the first UK hospital to use Skype to consult with patients.

The proposals, by Staffordshire’s biggest hospital, also include doctors treating patients via email consultations.

The move – which is part of a range of schemes to ease pressure on the hospital, which is coping with big increases in demand – has been welcomed by health campaigners.

Ian Syme, coordinator of pressure group North Staffordshire Healthwatch, said: “So long as the patient is confident using the system it sounds superb.

“But with vastly growing numbers of silver surfers, it must not be restricted to the young.”

One hospital in North Wales already uses Skype – but only so nurses can monitor dialysis patients at home.

Treating patients via Skype could prevent up to 180,000 people a year having to take time off work and travel to clinics.

Officials admit planning for the move is still at an early stage, but it has the potential to cut the annual 517,000 outpatient appointments by 35 per cent.

Typical of cases which could be seen by Skype video conference would be people who have had routine surgery or other treatment and simply need a doctor to review final scans before formally discharging them.

But anyone needing face-to face contact and physical examinations will still be called in to the hospital.

Chief executive Mark Hackett said: “Some patients take on technology better that others.

“But these methods could suit in particular the under-50s who now have to take time off work to get to appointments.

“They would see it as a much more sensible way forward to avoid making trips to the hospital.

“We have to look at trying to harness new forms of technology. For example we also need to remove paper records and stop having lots of clerks filling in pieces of paper.”

Skype consultations were last night welcomed by business leaders and health campaigners.

Jane Gratton, deputy chief executive of Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, said: “I think employers would support this as well as their workers.

“For people to spend 10 minutes talking to the doctor while at work instead of having to take the whole day off would help their company’s productivity.

“It’s good the hospital wants to make best use of the latest technology.”

The move is part of a range of schemes to ease pressure on the hospital which is coping with big increases in demand.

In A&E alone patient numbers have soared by 11 per cent over the winter despite a forecast growth of just seven per cent being planned for.

The trust also wants to help GPs by setting up ‘hot clinics’ where specialists can see patients with already-diagnosed conditions – and then send them straight back to their surgery without needing an admission to a ward.

And it is hoping to aiming to shift out a further 50,000 patients a year through consultants running clinics in community settings.

In 2012 the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS) said in advice to doctors that Skype could reduce the number of missed GP appointments.

Medical adviser Dr Barry Parker, from the MDDUS, said: “The concept of holding consultations via Skype is an interesting development, which may have clear advantages in terms of convenience for patients and doctors.

“Seeing your doctor in a safe and convenient way in the comfort of your own home may appeal to some patients.

“Skype consultations may potentially be better than telephone advice calls, in that the patient can see who they are talking to, aiding communication, and the doctor can gain an overall impression of the patient’s condition.”

But he added: “The medico-legal pitfalls of Skype consultations are not yet fully apparent as it is a recent development, but it is anticipated that some of these will be similar to telephone advice.

“The key issue for doctors will be to recognise when this mode of consultation is not sufficient to properly assess the patient and address the problem, and to arrange a face-to-face consultation instead.”

Already in North Wales one hospital – Ysbyty Gwynedd, in Bangor – is pioneering Skype to allow kidney patients to use dialysis machines at home.

Rather than spend up to 12 hours in hospital for treatment each week, patients now have a degree of flexibility of when and for how long they use the machine which helps purify their blood.

The idea of using Skype, came from the local Kidney Patients Association.

Ken Jones, secretary of the Kidney Patients Association, explained: “Each week a patients needs to undergo at least 12 hours of dialysis.

“By using Skype, the patient can stay at home, they don’t need to get dressed especially to go out, and can do it in blocks of two hours to fit it in around their life.

“It’s 100,000 times better than having to go to hospital.”