The health secretary has announced a “move towards self-diagnosis” in the NHS with a new online symptom-checker.
Speaking at NHS Expo in Manchester today, Jeremy Hunt has said the online tool would replace NHS 111 call handlers with a set of online questions, which he said would be “more convenient” for some people.
“What this is not doing is ever replacing the role of the doctor or nurse or someone with clinical training who needs to make a clinical judgement about the treatment people need,” he said.
“People Google their symptoms the whole time but wouldn’t they like to have something that’s trusted and approved by the NHS.”
However, the Royal College of General Practioners (RCGP) said the new service should be approached with “extreme caution”.
Maureen Baker, chair of the RCGP, said: “Patients are increasingly turning to the internet to find out about their own health – and reputable health websites, such as NHS Choices, can be a really useful source of information for patients, so plans to enhance this service is positive.
“But taking this one step further, and asking patients to use an online tool when they are ill in lieu of describing their symptoms to someone over the phone, who is trained to ask the right questions, should be approached with extreme caution.
She added: “It also risks alienating some of our most vulnerable patients, who might not be as used to dealing with technology as others.
“Technology can lead to huge benefits for patient care, but moving a service online doesn’t necessarily mean it needs fewer resources. NHS 111 centres – online or telephone – will still need to be staffed appropriately to meet demand, and have sufficient numbers of healthcare professionals who are trained to deal with serious – and not so serious – medical conditions.
“If this pilot is to go ahead, it needs to be continuously and rigorously evaluated, with patient safety at the forefront.”
Hunt also announced a library of NHS-approved apps and wearable devices, which he said will be available from March next year.
“I wear a FitBit. Many people use apps. What’s going to change with apps is the way that these apps link directly into our own medical records,” he said, adding that these apps will focus on mental health and diabetes.