Experiences with online consultation systems in primary care: Case study of one early adopter site
© 2017 British Journal of General Practice. Background There is a strong policy drive towards implementing alternatives to face-to-face consultations in general practice to improve access, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. These alternatives embrace novel technologies that are assumed to offer potential to improve care. Aim To explore the introduction of one online consultation system (Tele-Doc) and how it shapes working practices. Design and setting Mixed methods case study in an inner-city general practice. Method The study was conducted through interviews with IT developers, clinicians, and administrative staff, and scrutiny of documents, websites, and demonstrator versions of Tele-Doc, followed by thematic analysis and discourse analysis. Results Three interrelated themes were identified: online consultation systems as innovation, managing the 'messiness' of general practice consultations, and redistribution of the work of general practice. These themes raise timely questions about what it means to consult in contemporary general practice. Uptake of Tele-Doc by patients was low. Much of the work of the consultation was redistributed to patients and administrators, sometimes causing misunderstandings. The 'messiness' of consultations was hard to eliminate. In-house training focused on the technical application rather than associated transformations to practice work that were not anticipated. GPs welcomed varied modes of consulting, but the aspiration of improved efficiency was not realised in practice. Conclusion Tele-Doc offers a new kind of consultation that is still being worked out in practice. It may offer convenience for patients with discrete, single problems, and a welcome variation to GPs' workload. Tele-Doc's potential for addressing more complex problems and achieving efficiency is less clear, and its adoption may involve unforeseeable consequences.