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Primary Care

5 steps to patient education with online consultations

Riccardo Garavani  | 17th December 2020
eConsult change curve - patient education

Every patient and patient population is different. As a whole, they can all benefit from practices introducing new digital services. Explaining these changes to patients and embedding them in can take time. We’ve carried out a lot of patient engagement work to better understand concerns and how we can support practices to improve patient education patients about online consultations.

Patient safety is our number one priority – it’s built into our values because we come from the NHS. It’s also one of the reasons so many GP practices across the country trust us to help them care for their patients.

However, as patients ourselves, we also understand why patients might be worried or distrusting of digital technologies. That’s why it’s so important that we, as a service provider, help you and your patients to understand why online consultation and triage technologies like eConsult are worth using.

One of our key takeaways from all our conversations with patients is that they don’t want us to tell them why they should use eConsult – they want to hear it from their practice! With that in mind, we’ve shared our 5 step plan for how you can educate your patients about online consultations and support their understanding of digital triage, with some tips and advice from those who have already done it successfully.

Image of blog heading with small speaking illustration
  1. Consider your patient population
  2. Let patients know how to access it
  3. Remind patients it exists
  4. Give patients a great experience
  5. Share how it’s worked for others

1. Consider your patient population when thinking about patient education

Some of your patients might be happy that they can access practice services online whenever it is convenient for them, perhaps because they are more used to going online or comfortable with trying out new technologies.

It’s also important to consider patients who might not feel so comfortable going online for their healthcare needs. Every patient is different, and some might find it easier to accept new ways to communicate with the practice than others.

We must be understanding of people’s preferences and how we all cope with change, but you can support your patients along this journey. The below change curve shows the common feeling that all of us experience when it comes to change.

Image of the change curve showing patients going from discovery to normal - patient education

Some patients will firstly react with shock and denial, so keeping them informed about what’s going on is key. Anger and fear may come next, and we must be respectful and sensitive about worries patients have. Patients will gradually come to accept eConsult and other digital services, but it can take time to get used to these changes. Once your patients recognise how these new processes can help them, celebrate their success!

Let patients know what their options are

Many patients will want to continue accessing their GP in the way they always have, by calling in, walking in, or pre-booking an appointment. These routes are harder at the moment because of the Coronavirus pandemic, and that’s why many GP practices have had to ask patients to try an online first option.

That’s not to say these access routes are closed forever, we all just need to be mindful about spreading the virus and keeping each other safe. We suggest that practices decide on the best access routes for their patients, bearing in mind what they know about them and the relationships that exist. Some patients might not physically be able to go online and we would never suggest that practices ask these patients to do so.

“For us, it’s opened the door to getting patients the right care based on the access route they prefer, and it works for both patients and practice. Patients who cannot use eConsult or other patient services can sometimes feel at a disadvantage with increasing digital drives. However, we try to share the message that if some patients can go online, it does open up the phone lines for patients who can only telephone the surgery. We can now offer both online and telephone access to patients but give them the same care.”

Nina Jenkins, South View Partnership

Explain the benefits

This might seem like an obvious point but it’s so important to tell your patients how online consultations and triage help both the practice and themselves. If they understand what benefits it can have and they are reassured that the practice would like them to use it, it’ll help with any concerns they may have.

Put very simply, online consultation and triage tools like eConsult are a way for everyone to easily tell the practice what kind of help they need. This allows the practice to decide how urgently everyone needs help, how best to help them, and how to do this with the number of practice staff available. This is the ‘triage’ element – the practice needs to be able to spot who needs help quickly and who can wait a little longer.

With COVID-19, practice staff also need to understand who it is safe to bring into the practice if they need to examine a patient, or who can be helped remotely, via email, text or telephone or video consultations. Reminding patients that the way we all access healthcare has had to change will help, and it is an opportunity to try something new that might work better for some patients.

“It’s excellent! I feel my query is being dealt with by appropriately qualified people and that if there was anything giving cause for alarm I would be contacted and offered an appointment. I am really busy with work and grandchildren and this is an efficient and professional service. Face to face appointments are rarely needed in my opinion! This service maximises GPs time and skill and allows them to spend time with those that really need it.”

NHS Patient
Image highlighting 3 things to consider about your patient population - patient education

2. Let patients know how to access it

A lot of your practice population are probably very comfortable with online services, such as banking or online shopping. They might be willing to give online consultations a try, but they need to know about them first. For those that might be less comfortable, it’s still worth letting them know about the different ways to access the practice in case they want to try it.

The key here is to be proactive and find ways to let as many people know about this service you’re offering. Think about including it as part of normal conversations with patients and ask those who have used it for feedback, or suggest they share their views with the community or online.

Make it obvious on your website

We ask all practices to put a big and brightly coloured eConsult banner on their website, on the home page, so that it’s one of the first things patients see. We also suggest that the practice explains what eConsult is and how they would like their patients to use it – this makes the expectation clear from the start. We’ve collated some examples of well-designed websites that prominently highlight eConsult.

Patients can also get confused and think online consultation tools are just another appointment booking system, so it’s worth explaining the process clearly. If you can explain why it helps both patients and the practice it will help patients see why they should give it a go.

“Very quick, effective and efficient service. I found eConsult on the practice website so thought I would try it out. I was impressed with the output and speed of delivery. Also, it was far easier and more practical compared to coming in for an appointment”.

NHS Patient

Different online options

Not only is eConsult available on your practice website, but we’ve also got a dedicated patient education and information hub on our website. Patients can search for the name of their practice to see if eConsult is available to them and start an online consultation straight away.

eConsult was also the first online consultation provider to integrate with the NHS App, which is available to patients across England. You can find out more about how eConsult works in the NHS App on this blog on our website. If your practice uses the myGP from iPlato, your patients can also connect to eConsult through the myGP app, a partnership that will help improve patient access to online services.

Social media is great for sharing updates and information with your practice community. If your practice has a Facebook page or group or is active on Twitter, this is another way you can spread the word about. Lots of practices have also started recording video messages to their patients, so you can follow other practices for inspiration.

For an easy win, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook and reshare our content. 

Explain it on your telephone system

It’s a habit to pick up the phone and ring your practice when you have a question, want advice or think you need to see a nurse or doctor. If everyone does this, especially when the practice opens, it’s understandable that the phone lines will be busy and that patients will have to wait to speak to someone.

But you can also use the practice’s telephone system as part of your patient education while they wait to speak to someone. Practices who record a message from a key member of the GP practice, such as the GP Partner, have found this to be an effective way to inform patients about alternative services.

“I’m very impressed with eConsult. I hadn’t heard of the service until I called for an appointment. Whilst waiting in the queue, the automated message mentioned the service so I thought it was worth a try. In all honesty, I thought I would still need an appointment. I was pleasantly surprised! I got a prompt and very helpful reply with a referral. Makes a huge difference to me to have such a fantastic service available!”

NHS Patient

Make it part of your offering

Your receptionists and care navigators are your front line to patients, and that can sometimes mean spending all day on the phone talking to people. They are a key communication channel with your patients, so it’s always worth asking patients if they are aware of eConsult or have tried it before. They can also help to answer any questions or concerns patients might have, making that transition to acceptance faster.

“I have used the eConsult service twice since the receptionist advised me to use it. I found it an excellent service and very efficient as the doctors would get back to me on the same day. It saved me a lot of time… I am very happy and have recommended it to my family and will continue to use it.”

NHS Patient

Having a crib sheet for your front line staff with key messages and questions helps to ensure all your patients get the same message and supports your staff to more easily answer queries. If you’re an eConsult customer, you can find some crib sheets to help you with this in the customer area of our website.

It’s important to consider that most patients will expect an appointment as the outcome of contacting the practice, but that might not always be the most appropriate thing for them. Deciding as a practice on how you want to position online consultations within your practice will help provide clarity to both staff and patients.

“We’ve moved away from making it an “appointment request” and instead tried to get our patients to start thinking about it more in terms of “tell us about your problem” as a lot will not be appointments anymore. One of the benefits for us is that often a patient gives more comprehensive and thought out answers than in a face to face as they have time to think about what they want from their GP.”

Dr Kris McLaughlin, Stonehaven Medical Group

To support patients who aren’t yet ready to try completing an online consultation by themselves, we offer practices ‘eConsult Lite’. This is a template that can be added to your clinical system and used by your care navigators or receptionists to collect key information from patients calling in. The practice will collect more information about the patient’s needs than they would otherwise, and this can help you make decisions about how best to help the patient.

“A lot of it is about patient education as with any other system. With patients whose details we get through on eConsult Lite, you deal with their problem, you deal with their medical issue and then you have a bit of a friendly chat about what you’re trying to achieve, how you’re trying to achieve it and would they try doing it next time. We just try to sell the benefits of it.”

Dr Rizwan Hussain, Blackwood Medical Group

Going back to your patient cohorts – there might be some who are unlikely to use online consultations, perhaps because their conditions are quite complex or they need to visit the practice regularly. You can use your clinical system to make a note of key patients who you probably wouldn’t suggest eConsult to. That way if they call in, you know straight away that the phone is the best way to support them.

Image showing 3 ways to let patients know how to access eConsult - patient education

3. Remind patients it exists

If you don’t contact your GP practice often, it can be easy to forget the best way to do so. Thankfully, there are several easy ways to keep eConsult at the front of your patients’ minds when they need your support. Here you can use the full range of digital options available such as newsletters, text and social media, but you might also want to consider more traditional methods for some patients, such as local news channels.

Include it in your newsletters

Practices send out regular newsletters, so this is an opportunity to consistently remind patients about services that you provide. If you can also include some facts and figures about how eConsult is being used in the practice and the benefit it is having, that will make it more relevant for patients. 

“Additional information on the eConsult increases the efficiency of our face to face and telephone consultations. Patients like the idea of not queueing and instead they can submit their information through eConsult. Every request is reviewed and most appropriate care given to each patient in a timely manner. If a patient does need a follow-up, the clinician has already seen a full history so they can begin treating immediately.”

Dr Vasu Sivarajasingam, Hillview Surgery

Patients will feel more confident if they know other patients are having a good experience, so you can also share some of the positive feedback patients give you directly, or that eConsult sends as part of our monthly reporting to practices.

If you want some examples of newsletters that other practices have sent out, have a look at these examples – some are from the same practice, showing how they keep coming back to eConsult with different angles.

Text your patients about it

One of the most effective forms of patients education is text messages. It’s becoming increasingly common to get texts from your GP practice telling you about new services available, reminding you that you need a checkup or that an appointment is coming up. This is a great way to inform your patients about services like eConsult – more so because you can include a link straight from the message itself!

You could send out a text message to your patients before you go live to let them know about the new service and when they can start using it. If you’re already live you can let them know about the benefits of using it and why they should give it a try.

Text messages are particularly useful when you need to communicate with one of your patient cohorts directly. You might want to send a link to one of our asthma clinical reviews to all your patients with breathing problems during spring, for example, to check in on how they are doing. Before holiday periods, you can also text patients a link to our travel advice questionnaire, so it’s easy for them to let your nursing team know about their plans and what you might need to help them with.

“We used to post letters to patients inviting them for asthma review appointments but most of the time patients didn’t attend. It wasn’t a good use of practice time or money. We now text our patients a link to the asthma questionnaire and the majority of patients complete the questions quickly and easily from their mobile phones. They’re happy to do it that way because it’s more convenient, and we’re happy because we’re also reducing the surgery’s carbon footprint by no longer posting out letters”

Dr Vasu Sivarajasingam, Hillview Surgery
Image with 3 ways to remind patients about eConsult - patient education

4. Give patients a great experience

If you had a terrible experience at a restaurant or when buying something from a shop, you might not want to go back. Digital services are no different.

It’s important to make sure the patient gets a positive experience from using digital services at the practice so that they’re more likely to use them again. It’s also good to remind them that the previous method wasn’t always perfect.

Here are some of the ways that you can provide your patients with the best experience possible:

  • Respond to your patients by or even before the time stated in your eConsult – for many patients, a quick response from their practice is all the reassurance they need. This doesn’t have to be a resolution – they just want to know the practice is dealing with their request.
  • Personalise your responses so they know there’s a person at the other end of the response. For example, you can thank patients for using eConsult or sensitively reference the reason they asked for your help.
  • If you’ve not been able to reach your patient, let them know you have tried and that the practice will try and contact them again. Perhaps give a time frame or remind them that phone calls might come from a private number and emails may go to junk inboxes.

The monthly anonymous patient feedback eConsult sends to practices is one key source of information about the experience your patients are having. It’s worth looking through this regularly for both positive and negative feedback, and sharing this across the practice. We’re also doing a lot of work with patients to understand how to improve the platform based on their feedback, so we too pay close attention to their feedback.

“It’s important to keep the message going that it’s worth the effort for patients to fill in this information up front as it will still be quicker overall than waiting on phone queues, travelling to practice, waiting to see a GP, etc.”

Dr Kris McLaughlin, Stonehaven Medical Practice
Image with 3 ways to give patients a great experience - patient education

5. Share how it’s worked for others

Finally – share experiences! Take advantage of patients who understand the benefits, who use eConsult regularly, and have noticed the benefits. These are your advocates! Your wider patient population is essential in improving the overall patient education of using eConsult.

“I was very satisfied because all the right questions were asked when I completed the questionnaire. My answers seemed to save Dr Cockcroft time as when he rang me he had read about my new health issues and was able to advise me accordingly.”

NHS Patient

Encourage any patient groups or advocates to start conversations with patients about their feelings and worries, individually or as a group. Don’t forget we’re always happy to join any patient meetings or to share our Patient Participation Group marketing pack if you need somewhere to start from.

Sharing feedback in your newsletters or on social media is another way to share the successes within your patient population. You can ask for support from local patient information groups such as Healthwatch in England too.

Patients leaving reviews on your NHS pages may specifically mention eConsult, so it’s worth monitoring these and sharing any good feedback with colleagues and patients alike. Similarly, look at your friends and family survey and anonymous eConsult patient feedback for quotes and examples from your patients.

“Spoke with the GP quickly, advice given was as good as if I had been there, face to face. A much quicker, more efficient service, which I’m sure enables the GP to consult with more patients. An all-round time saver for the GP and me. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this service again, it’s excellent.

NHS Patient

If you want to shout about your successes and let your community know about eConsult, we can help you with a case study that you can share with your peers and patients, or we can support you with local press activity. Patient education is key to the success of eConsult in your practice.

Image with 3 ways to share positive feedback with patients