Now that we can no longer pop into our GP clinic at the drop of a hat, we’re relying on virtual services more than ever.

While telemedicine has been available for years, the current pandemic has accelerated its adoption.

Dr Lawrence Lau set up Capel Street Medical Centre in 2016, a GP clinic in the heart of Dublin City.

When the pandemic hit, Dr Lau started preparing his patients for virtual consultations, so he could still provide care in the event of a lockdown.

“Months ago I started doing video consultations with my patients, just so they would be reassured that the service would be there for them if the country went into lockdown. It reduces the fear that they will have no access to healthcare, if they have to limit their movements during a crisis like this,” he said.

Now, Dr Lau carries out the majority of his consultations online and says the feedback from patients has been very positive.

“My patients have adapted quite well and I haven’t had one complaint about the situation. They all know that we are carrying out the virtual consultations for their own safety,” he said.

Dr Lau said if he needs to see a patient in person and is confident that their issue is not Covid-19 related, he will book them in.

“I will still book them in face to face if I need to do a physical examination. They will not be sitting in a waiting room like before though. They are brought in one at a time with all the necessary precautions,” he said.

By connecting with patients on a video call, Dr Lau is able to assess how the patient looks and sounds, which he said can tell a lot about their overall condition.

“I was surprised that I could diagnose and treat a lot of my patients through a video call alone. For example, someone with appendicitis, I can see the patient lying in bed struggling to move and I can get a family member to feel his or her tummy. I can then refer them to hospital and they will get surgery that evening.

“Before the pandemic, a patient would have needed to come into the clinic for me to examine them physically, while they were in great discomfort. Now they can lie in bed with a family taking the video and I can diagnose straight away. I think it has changed the way healthcare is being delivered,” he said.

Now that Covid-19 cases are once again on the rise in Dublin, Dr Lau is relieved that the online consultation service will allow him to provide care, despite the restrictions in place.

“Most of my patients are Dublin based, but a lot of them dispersed back to their home counties before the lockdown was announced. I now have patients in places like Cork and Donegal. Even though my patients are spread out all over the country, I can still be their GP and care for them virtually and give them all the care they need,” he said.

Dr Lau is just one of 1,200 clinicians using the Hashealth service to carry out video consultations with patients.

The platform, designed by Webdoctor was launched with the support of the HSE’s digital transformation team.

Webdoctor Clinical Director, Dr Sylvester Mooney and CEO, Oisin Kim

Oisin Kim, CEO of Webdoctor said he has noticed a seismic change in the understanding of what telemedicine can provide, with hundreds of clinicians signing up for the service over the past few months.

“We have seen a huge increase in consultants, counsellors, physiotherapists, chiropractors, dentists and pharmacists using the HasHealth platform to consult with their patients and customers. This change bodes well for the wider scale adoption of technology in medicine but also the understanding of what it can do and what it is suitable for,” he said.

As well as offering the HasHealth platform to clinicians across the country, Webdoctor also runs an online GP service.

Like a typical bricks and mortar clinic, Kim said most of their consultations deal with common issues.

“Patients will get in touch with us for things like general colds and flus, female reproductive health, sexual health, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, allergies, minor sports injuries, stomach upsets, lots of different things,” he said.

Virtual consultation services are in high demand as a result of the pandemic.

WebDoctor, which also runs the online consultation service for LAYA Healthcare, has been growing rapidly for the past year and soon hopes to reach one million customers in Europe.

VHI has seen a 500% increase in GP online services, with 1,900 online consultations carried out last month, compared to just 300 in August 2019.

My Clinic reported a 300% increase in consultations in March and April.

Dr Terry Deeny, Chief Operating Officer at MyClinic said he believes there are countless advantages to using virtual services, and many patients are only now discovering these benefits as a result of the pandemic.

“Prior to the pandemic, I think convenience and cost were the top advantages for users. Now, I think people want to avoid public places or avoid being close to people who might be sick. I think people take some comfort from not having to wait in a waiting room,” he said.

While Dr Deeny said there will always be a need for physical GP clinics, he is confident that telemedicine has a huge role to play in the future.

“I think people have become a lot more comfortable with this kind of service. They are starting to see ways that we might be able to use these services to cut down on waiting times to see consultants – not just in primary care but in secondary hospitals, tertiary centres and special outpatient clinics.

“I have no doubt that going forward this is going to be something that people will continue to use even more and in different ways,” he said.

Understandably, there are limitations to virtual health services.

While Webdoctor does offer some home testing kits, it is not yet ready to offer an at home Covid-19 test.

Webdoctor CEO, Oisin Kim tested one such kit under the supervision of a GP, but said it is not something they will be offering at the moment.

“I did the nasal swab on myself under supervision. I couldn’t believe how far the swab went up my nose. We just didn’t feel comfortable offering that type of service as an at home test. Our home tests are all blood, urine or swab tests that are tried and tested and in heavy use across Ireland, the UK and elsewhere,” he said.

Down the line though, “anything is possible,” said Kim.