23 Mar 2020

Thousands of GPs significantly cut face-to-face contact, move to virtual appointments

From First Up, 5:51 am on 23 March 2020

GP's around the country will today move to virtual appointments, aiming to cut down face-to-face contact with patients by 70 per cent. 

Young doctor giving helping hands for elderly woman

Photo: 123RF

In a bid to keep staff and patients safe, The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners made an urgent request to members to begin using phone, email and video technology to deal with patients - and to only see those they have to. 

It's believed many transmissions in Europe happened in doctors' waiting rooms, and it's hoped that stopping patients coming in to clinics will reduce the risk of that happening here.

More than 5000 practices across the country were asked to make the changes on Saturday - meaning many had just little more than 24 hours to prepare. 

Rachel Halford is the Practice Manager of Remuera Village Medical Centre in Auckland which has more than 10,000 patients, she told First Up the shift to virtual appointments had to happen as soon as possible.

"It's been a pretty full on 24 hours. We had to call all of our patients, figure out whether or not their consultations could be done virtually, whether we could see them via webcam or talk to them over the phone," said Halford.

"For us, having to make the shift so quickly has obviously caused an issue because we're not set up for webcams. So I guess we've done as much as we can to dramatically change the way we operate this morning."

Yesterday Ms Halford made almost a hundred phone calls to patients advising them of the new changes and assessing their needs.

Remuera Village Medical Centre has now completely stopped prescription pick-ups with prescriptions now being faxed directly to pharmacies.

It's hoped the virtual consultations will stop people coming in to the practice unannounced. 

Many people in a waiting room to see a doctor

Photo: 123rf / JES STUDIO / sopotnicki.com

"Obviously the emergencies we'll need to see in person. Virtual consultations will be done over the phone or webcam. So this morning there'll be a sign outside of our practice that will say - if you have not been advised to come into the practice, please go to your car and give us a call," said Halford.

Patients who cannot do a virtual consultation will receive a phone consultation with one of the medical centre's doctors 

Halford said despite hearing that other General Practices were considering closing down, it was not an option for the Remuera Village Medical Centre.

"There's still a big task to be done. For us it was putting a bit more control around the way we see patients," she said.

"It has not felt like a normal day in General Practice for a few weeks now. Staff are coping but it's definitely a day-by-day thing. They're on the frontline and they're aware of that. They've been under a significant amount of pressure and stress purely because of the workload but also due to the nature of what we're dealing with. So it has been a difficult time."

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Photo: 123rf

Halford said she is aware that some GPs are backing calls for the Nationwide alert level to be escalated to 4 but she hopes the new changes would make things more sustainable and safer for all in the interim.

"The thing is, if we follow the rules at our practice and make sure that people aren't coming in unannounced we'll be able to manage the way we are for a really longtime hopefully," said Halford who has a handful of people being tested for COVID-19 at the centre everyday.

"The biggest concern would probably be people not following the rules. People coming in announced, people not listening to our staff.  But I'm hoping this would become the new normal for everyone in our practice right now."

In a plea to the public, Halford is urging people to call the practice first before coming into the clinic.

"We need to know why you're coming in. Don't come in unannounced. We will make sure you'll still talk to a doctor, you'll still get your prescription, we'll get you to talk to a nurse. Be kind and be patient with us. We're trying our best."