Thursday, October 8, 2009

Online GP consultations CAN work

Last night I checked out the new online surgery that I wrote about on Monday. I've had a few health problems recently so it was legitimate but, of course, as a journalist, I couldn't help throwing a couple of curve balls too.

To recap on how it works, it could hardly be easier: you just log on using a nickname if you like and talk to a doctor live online in a private chat room. My verdict is that this sort of consultation can be useful - up to a point.

The downsides first. It's far more time consuming than a real GP's appointment. We spent half an hour on something that would have taken 10 minutes face to face and had all sorts of fun trying to agree over the units we were talking about for some recent blood tests.

At times I got the impression the doc wasn't reading my comments properly which led me to ask if he was talking to other patients at the same time. He assured me that he wasn't. That being so I can only assume he wasn't seeing my inputs properly or in real time. The technology probably needs tweaking and there's a good case for a little IT training for doctors - and I suppose, patients - in using it.

But the positives made up for this, I think. I was far more comfortable in this environment. The doctor-patient relationship felt far more equal. There are no pedestals online or intimidating white coats or ties. I was able to ask what was really on my mind and the doc was able to clarify a few things. The limitation of this - the reason I say online consultations are only useful up to a point - is the same problem as we had on malehealth with our Ask The Doctor feature. Ultimately, the best advice, the only advice a doctor can give over the internet in all confidence, is: you should go and see your own GP about this.

Of course, a good online consultation beforehand can ensure you're better prepared, less intimidated and don't waste anybody's time (a common reason for not using the doctor according to research out today). All good reasons for developing the use of online medicine I think.

The curve ball? This particular online surgery is funded by Pfizer, the drug company whose extensive portfolio includes Viagra. It's a legitimate concern that a doctor's surgery funded by a drug company might result in the over-enthusiastic promotion of their products. I'm delighted to say this didn't happen. At the risk of mixing my baseball and cricket metaphors, the doc played my questions with a straight bat. He gave very good advice about what erection problems might mean and the tests used to find out without once mentioning the sponsor's product.

This particular surgery is open till Friday 9 October. There are also two similar online facilities being run by the European Men's Health Forum, one for questions on sexual health, the other on prostate health. Again, I've written about this EMHF service before. Why not give one - or all - of them a try and let us know what you think.

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