In some ways, it’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since the pandemic forced us into the first national lockdown. In other ways, it feels like it’s been much longer. One thing we know is that it has changed many of our habits.

Online shopping rose by 50% within two months, while many of our usual appointments were either postponed or held virtually. 2020 was the year of video calls, with work meetings, pub quizzes, family gatherings, and even GP appointments held online or over the phone. This shift to virtual healthcare appointments in particular represents a huge change in one key area of our life.

We’re not out of the pandemic woods yet, so many GP and hospital consultations are still being held remotely. This allows patients to seek medical help in a risk-free environment, while also ensuring the safety of our NHS staff. Remote appointments also have the potential to save time for patients, who won’t have to travel to the surgery unless necessary.

This move to remote consultations saw interest in digital and online GP appointments skyrocket. As we navigated the pandemic and multiple lockdowns, our healthcare needs evolved. But is digital healthcare set to stay, and if so, is that the best option for ourselves and our families?

Health cash plans provider Westfield Health has analysed Google search data throughout the coronavirus pandemic to find out if we’re ready to fully embrace digital healthcare, and what a shift to digital means for you and your family.

The way we managed our healthcare changed

It’s no surprise that, as the first national lockdown forced surgeries to close their doors, we were required to seek online alternatives. While 99% of GP practices had the capabilities to hold video consultations in place, NHS data shows that these appointments actually dropped by 77.24% between January 2020 and April 2020. In the same timeframe, telephone appointments more than doubled.

For many, however, telephone appointments weren’t ideal. How can you accurately show or tell your doctor your problem if they can’t see you? Patients in Scotland reported frustrations with telephone appointments not meeting their needs. This is particularly impactful on certain groups of people, including parents of young children, as children may not be able to verbalise exactly what is wrong. Video appointments are certainly a better option, but they may still not allow GPs to accurately treat a child without a physical examination.

Searches for online GP support soar in first lockdown

As expected, searches for a number of terms related to online GP appointments and consultations hit their highest peak when the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020. The term ‘NHS online GP’ increased by 650% from the previous year from 720 monthly searches to 5,400. ‘NHS online consultation’ rose by a huge 2,614.3% year on year, from a modest 70 searches a month to 1,900 at its peak, as people sought out alternatives to telephone appointments.

All searches related to digital and online GP support experienced a 71.87% increase in searches year on year in March 2020, reaching a total of 85,400 searches. This number dropped slightly but remained strong in April 2020. Searches centred around online and digital GP services were still up 63.51% year-on-year in April 2020 as lockdown measures continued.  

The easing of lockdown

Our shift to seeking digital healthcare support may have been forced upon us, but was it a positive change that continued?

Many surgeries offered an eConsult option to patients during the pandemic, which guided users through a form about their health concern. The form is then submitted to their GP, the patients receive a reply and, if necessary, a video, telephone, or in-person consultation. A report by the Health Innovation Network South London found that 75% of patients who had used the service would do so again, with 64% reporting that it saved them time. A BMJ report also states that GP surgeries report high levels of patient satisfaction with video consultations.

But as lockdown measures first began to ease in May 2020, so did our interest in digital GP services. Despite outstanding levels of satisfaction with digital services, online interest began to drop in line with lockdown restrictions lifting.

While interest remained higher than the previous year, searches decreased by 15% between March and May 2020, and a further 16.48% from May to June. When restrictions were at their lowest levels in the summer, with the exception of local lockdowns in Leicester, search levels were closer to their 2019 levels. They remained at a lower level for the rest of 2020. This suggests patients reverted to their “normal” routines when it comes to healthcare, favouring in-person appointments.

New lockdown, renewed interest

As we entered a new lockdown in January 2021, interest in online GP services rose once again; searches for these terms rose 18.32%. Interest didn’t reach the levels of March 2020, but this may be due to the fact that people were registering more for digital NHS services throughout last year.

NHS Digital data that shows usage of its digital solutions increased across the board in 2020. The number of people using the NHS App increased by 912% between December 2019 and December 2020, rising from 192,676 to 1,951,640. The NHS App can be used for booking in-person, face-to-face or telephone appointments, ordering repeat prescriptions, and viewing your medical record, perfectly blending digital and traditional healthcare.

Is digital healthcare the way forward?

Despite the fact that interest in digital healthcare dropped as it became less of a necessity, satisfaction with these services is high. So, why aren’t we turning to these options more?

While we’ll never fully eliminate in-person appointments, the option of digital healthcare offers many benefits both to the NHS and patients. The biggest benefit, which users of the eConsult service have noted, is time saving. In the same way that we’ve adopted working from home and seen a better work-life balance, we’ve recognised that virtual GP consultations also offer this benefit. We may also be more likely to book 10-minute phone appointments knowing that we only need to allocate those 10 minutes, instead of factoring in travel and waiting times. This additional time investment can be off-putting to those with busy lives or family commitments.

This not only benefits patients, but it can also allow doctors to prioritise high-risk and vulnerable patients. These digital options are fantastic and meet a number of needs, but they must be blended with face-to-face appointments. We could even see a scenario where high-risk patients and parents are prioritised for in-person appointments because it would be difficult to receive adequate treatment over the phone or online.

We were forced to change the way we deal with our healthcare needs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic last year. GP surgeries shut their doors to almost all patients, consulting remotely instead. This pushed us to seek digital support, and while we can see from search data that this was largely an enforced change, it was certainly a useful one.

Interest levels rose and fell in line with lockdown restrictions, so for many, digital services were a means to an end. However, these options offer benefits to both patients and doctors. While we’ll never see digital replace traditional healthcare and GP treatment, the blending of the two services is the way forward.