Patients groups hit out at plan for online NHS services

Plans to move NHS services online to help free up clinics, including the use of Skype video calls for consultations with GPs, have been criticised by charities representing patients with chronic illnesses.

Health minister Dan Poulter says that moving services online would save the NHS £3bn and improve care for less mobile patients.

He added that the plans would "make life easier for patients" and support "people with long-term health conditions like diabetes, dementia and heart disease to be better looked after and supported in their own homes and communities".

But Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said that while he was pleased to see the NHS using technology to improve services, the plans were "unlikely to benefit the significant number of heart patients who are elderly or from deprived parts of the community and may not have access to the internet".

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt pushed for a move towards more online services in an NHS mandate earlier this month. He wants all patients to be able to book GP appointments, order repeat prescriptions and talk to their GP practice on the internet by 2015.

Under the proposals which are set out in a Department of Heath report called Digital First, doctors would be able to access patients' records via smartphone, and nurses would be given iPads. The Government hopes that cutting down on unnecessary face-to-face appointments will free up staff and help to fill a £20bn funding gap.

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, a group which lobbies for improvement in patient care, said: "The telehealth agenda must be driven by a desire to improve clinical outcomes and patient care, not the Government's plans to save £20bn."

The Department of Health insists that a move online would not result in an end to face-to-face contact with GPs.

Dr Poulter said the Government "recognises that not everyone, particularly frail, older people, will have easy access to the internet".

Michelle Mitchell, director general at Age UK, said,: "People of all ages still prefer human contact. It gives the medical professional the chance to recognise health issues that may not be obvious from a distance."