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Orkney embraces virtual health appointments

Midwives Theresa Ritch with Taylah Spence (on screen) try the Near Me system.

A larger proportion of patients in Orkney are taking up virtual appointments than anywhere else in the country.

As COVID-19 continues to change the way patients engage with health services, statistics show that NHS Orkney clinicians, and patients, have embraced the technological shift to online appointments – which use webcams and allow patients to stay at home – more than any other board region in Scotland.

More than 160 Near Me consultations are now taking place each week – more per head of population than any other region.

Value and sustainability lead with NHS Orkney, Kenny Low said: “Near Me clinics have taken-off out of necessity and we seem to be performing well. Everyone is in the same boat trying to step-up and deliver.

Before anyone had heard of Covid-19 we were already planning to equip GP practices for appointments and started that in October last year.”

On March 11 national guidance was issued asking boards to accelerate the roll-out of the technology in an effort to curb the spread of the virus across the country.

Kenny added: “Ultimately the increase in Near Me appointments has protected both our patients and staff from possible infection. We were looking to gradually introduce it but events over took that. We have trained more than 200 clinicians in range of specialisms since then.

There are benefits to Near Me over phone consultations and evidence shows visually you can pick-up signs and body language far more than on a phone call. So where it is clinically appropriate to do so we are having as many of these using Near Me as possible.

The initial focus was on enabling GP Practices, attention was shifted to Mental Health Services, AHP and other clinical services traditionally delivered from the Balfour as the pandemic response developed. Working closely with service leads, training was delivered, equipment put in place and appointment processes modified to mirror the GP roll-out.

Uptake from both patients and clinicians has been very encouraging. Our Mental Health service has been able to meet the demands within the community at a time of increased anxiety and isolation.”

He added that the uptake across the entire Mental Health Team led to them being asked to contribute to a national learning event to share their experiences.

Our maternity service is also doing very well and, despite only recently taking up the use of the technology, was similarly invited to contribute to a future national learning event due to its success,” Kenny said.

GP Simon Kemp from Daisy Villa has been selected, as one of only six practices in Scotland, to be part of a joint project with NHS Scotland and the Royal College of General Practitioners to develop guidance and help embed virtual appointment within GP practices across Scotland.

Near Me isn’t just about a response to Covid-19 – it was around before the pandemic. The trick for us is going to be to embed it and it can be the new normal in the future as we continue to protect our community.

For Orkney it has many benefits including providing care closer to home and reducing spend in relation to off island patient travel.

Going forward we will be targeting specialities where we have high numbers of patients travelling – sometimes on a three day round trip. We will work closely with our partner boards to ensure that the recent momentum continues and that the virtual clinic option becomes ‘business as usual’, where it is clinically appropriate to do so.”