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Health: Online Services

Volume 790: debated on Monday 23 April 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking in response to the Care Quality Commission’s report, The state of care in independent online primary health services, published on 23 March.

My Lords, the online provision of primary care is a development with the potential to improve patient outcomes. However, it is important that these services are regulated and inspected properly. The CQC will continue to hold online providers to account while sharing good practice. Following its report, we are considering what further action is needed to ensure that the right balance is struck between the provision of safe, effective care and encouraging further innovation.

I thank the Minister for his response. We are strongly in favour of technologies and innovations that help to provide the widest possible access to primary health services, particularly when getting a timely GP appointment is so difficult for thousands of patients. The CQC inspection role is crucial but there is no disguising the serious issues to be addressed and resolved. These include checking patients’ identity, sharing information with the NHS GP and the safe prescribing of medicines. Some 43% of companies are failing to meet regulations for keeping patients safe and there are particular concerns about inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics and medicines and about managing long-term conditions. How will the Government ensure that the lessons from the first phase of the CQC inspection are learned, and will they pledge to take swift action on the problems now before the service is further rolled out?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising this important issue. She is right that the CQC report identified some serious issues among this group of online providers, which of course operate in the independent sector. She mentioned safety and safeguarding, and I would add to that. It is worth saying that there were some positive responses, in terms of 97% of the providers being caring and 90% of them responsive, so some strengths were identified as well as weaknesses. Obviously the CQC retains the ability to take regulatory action. As it sets out in the report, it has done so to ensure that standards improve, and in general they improve from one inspection to the next. However, this is of course the independent sector. We are looking at the lessons for the provision of NHS services. The biggest one of those that comes out of the report is around data sharing: to ensure a clear flow of data between an online provider and a GP, if they are different, so that any problems can be spotted early on. That is particularly important for safety.

My Lords, as the Minister has just said, this is a picture of things to come. Could he give an indication of when the Government expect that GP practices would regularly be able to give an online service to the general public and their patients? What support, financially and developmentally, would they be sure to get from NHS England?

On that specific point, NHS England is providing £45 million through the general practice forward view to promote online consultations. That is to ensure that they are available in general practice across the country. The noble Baroness will be aware of the GP at Hand practice, which is one practice in west London offering these services, but we are seeking to expand them, and NHS England, the CQC and others are providing regulatory support during that process.

My Lords, can the Minister explain the process? If someone chooses to access an online GP service, what happens to their registration with the GP with whom they are already registered—if they are registered? Is the process clear to each patient?

That is an excellent question. It is important to distinguish between the independent sector and the NHS. The CQC report was about the independent sector, so a patient would continue to be registered with their NHS GP practice and have an augmenting consultation, if you like. With GP at Hand, as it is an NHS practice, they would switch their registration. One issue that has come up is whether people have full enough information about that switching, which is one thing that NHS England is reviewing in the independent review that it has commissioned about the success or otherwise of that service.

What steps are the Government taking to encourage people—I appreciate that they cannot force them—throughout the UK to use only online medical services which are registered with the CQC?

This is of course the way the economy is going in general and is a great passion of the Secretary of State. Indeed, he made a commitment at the NHS Expo conference last year that, by the end of this year, every patient would have access to an NHS app online which will enable them to do things such as book consultations, see who has viewed their medical record and set their preferences about things such as blood and transplant donations. A huge stream of work is going on to ensure that those services are available to all patients in the NHS.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Brussels is introducing the GDPR arrangement for registration of email addresses and the rest. Could he say a word about how that might impact both independent services and the National Health Service, and counsel doctors accordingly so that they do not get it wrong?

That is an excellent point: the entire country is preparing for the advent of the GDPR on 25 May. We are engaged in a large programme of work with the Information Commissioner’s Office and others to ensure that everyone working in the health and care services understands their obligations and informs patients accordingly.

My Lords, a large number of reproductive clinics publish their wares by advertising on the London Underground, often at great cost, sometimes making claims about their treatments. If I did that as a doctor, I would be struck off the register. They get round it because they are private clinics. Is that appropriate? Does the Care Quality Commission have any involvement in this process, and should it?

I would have to look at the specific clinics that the noble Lord is talking about. The subject of the report was those providing online services. One of the things it discovered was that certain regulatory issues are unique to the provision of online services, an example of which is when the data is held offshore and what that means for regulation. As the CQC says in its report, it is reviewing its regulations to make sure that it can account for the unique aspects of online provision, so that the critical aspects, whether they are about truthful advertising or other aspects, are dealt with properly.

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, there is an increasing number of independent primary care practitioners. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that on the medical workforce of the NHS?

I am not specifically aware of such an evaluation, but I know that there is a need for more general practitioners, which we are all aware of, and indeed for a plan to recruit many more to the service to ensure that all patients and citizens of this country can find a GP in the NHS when they need it.