Whilst GP surgeries were one of the first sectors to fully implement the use of computers to log personal information, calls to open these systems to the use of apps and online technologies have often been met with resistance from GPs and the NHS. This new partnership between the NHS and babylon health represents a move to reconcile the gap between current GP systems and current standards of technology. But is it as good an opportunity as it is being highlighted as?

One of the major concerns in terms of virtual GP consultations, relates to data protection and patient confidentiality. Information stored on 'cloud based' servers has often been the subject of online hackers, with problems seen from the gaming industry to the banking industry. A very recent example of this is the number of incidents across Asia of attackers targeting banks via the SWIFT interbank messaging service. Where money and banking information is concerned, the insurance industry exists in order to recompense those losses, supported by implementing stronger firewalls and changing passwords on all systems. 

In terms of patient information, the theft or manipulation of this data can have far greater consequences, with potentially life-threatening impacts. Malicious manipulation of information could impact the health of thousands, whilst theft of information could remove important records or result in the publication of sensitive patient information, impacting every aspect of a person's life. 

The article also states that "patients will be able to have a video consultation with an NHS GP typically in under two hours of booking". One of the benefits of this being that you do not need to book time off work to have an appointment. The security of the video consultation itself, linked with the need to find a private location in which to participate can be seen to cause serious questions in terms of the protection of patient confidentiality; in this case with the possibility for revealing personal information purely from the ability to overhear the details discussed during the appointment. 

However, in the current economic climate, this solution could have the potential to save the NHS time and money in the longer term. Patients would be able to see a GP as soon as they need to, therefore potentially cutting down the number of people who, unable to book an appointment, go to A&E. It also provides a useful opportunity to ensure that those who have a time sensitive condition are diagnosed as early as possible, therefore encouraging the best possible outcomes. In addition to saving the NHS money, it could be seen that this approach has the potential to positively impact the health of thousands who are unable to access the care that the require. 

The use of the GP at Hand system provides a convenience for patients in a system where many complain of finding it difficult to book appointments with their GP. In terms of some conditions, waiting two weeks for an appointment can lead to worse outcomes in the long term, whilst not necessarily appearing life-threatening at the point of booking. It also offers the potential to provide support to those who spend a lot of time away from their homes: whether this is those who work within London and live outside of the city, or students who move into the area for a short time before returning home. With some people using this system, and others remaining with their current GPs, there is the potential for reductions in waiting lists at GP surgeries as the burden of people is spread between multiple sources. 

In the future, the development of this service has the potential to expand to cover all areas of a person's health requirements. For example, it offers the potential for personal management of long term health conditions, the ability to easily view one's own health records, alert the patient when prescriptions are up for renewal and even collect wide information on the effect of treatments. 

The arguments both for and against the use of a virtual GP appointment system are strong, leaving an air of uncertainty around the perceived success of the scheme. On the one hand, there is a definite need for change both in terms of the organisation of an overburdened system and the technological aspects. On the other, there are legitimate questions regarding whether this is the right change to be making at this point. It will be interesting to watch this scheme develop, as it bodes well for the future of sustainable alternatives to current health management systems.