Lord Bethell said it makes “no sense” for this system to continue, with many ill people sitting close to each other waiting for appointments, with the risk of spreading diseases to each other.
“The health system will not be the same going forward,” he said, responding to peers raising concerns over the lack of face-to-face meetings with doctors in GP surgeries and hospitals.
“We will have to change our approach to infection control and hygiene in a way that puts face-to-face contact in a completely different way. It makes no sense for lots of ill people to congregate in a GP surgery and spread their disease amongst one another.
“We have to rethink the way in which we did our healthcare in the past to protect healthcare workers and patients themselves … and to afford a sustainable healthcare system that can afford to look after everyone.” His comments highlight a planned shift in care delivered by family doctors where the default position will be a “digital” consultation unless there is a health or other reason for a face-to-face meeting.
Ministers believe that the coronavirus crisis has shown how GPs can deliver primary care on a far larger scale by phone, video or other digital means.
Such a change is seen as particularly beneficial in rural areas as many patients and doctors will no longer have to travel long distances for appointments. However, it will raise concerns that the standard of care could fall in some cases where symptoms might have been picked up by doctors seeing patients face-to-face.
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of health think tank the Nuffield Trust, said: “For future GP appointments, there will need to be a greater emphasis on infection control measures than was the case, which may introduce delays.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said that since the pandemic began, GP services were doing more triage and remote consultations by telephone and online, so as many patients could be seen while protecting staff and patients. A DHSC spokeswoman added: “There is now an opportunity for government, the NHS, and professional representatives to ensure that these innovations can be adapted into a sustainable model for the future.”
Dr Mark Sanford-Wood, BMA GP committee deputy chairman, said: “GP practices have responded innovatively in how they have delivered care, and it is likely they will want to keep what has worked well. It will be for individual practices to decide how best to deliver safe and effective care to patients.”