In recent years we have seen a technological revolution in the way that health care is delivered in the Highlands through the rollout of NHS Near Me.
I have always welcomed NHS Highland’s pioneering efforts to introduce a digital service which can supplement, but not replace, a range of consultations, treatments and therapies.
For patients living in remote rural communities NHS Near Me offers huge benefits such as reduced travelling costs and less time away from school or work.
This new digital service certainly helped NHS Highland to continue delivering some treatments during the lockdown too. Indeed, the success of NHS Near Me in our region saw it rapidly introduced to all Scottish health boards in the initial months of the pandemic.
This was certainly the right decision. Between March and June 2020 video consultations across NHS Scotland rose from 330 per week to just under 17,000, proving just how important Near Me was to the continued operation of our health services outside of addressing the Covid-19 public health emergency.
However, as society re-opens again and our health services are remobilised, we must consider carefully how far delivery of services should return to normal and which changes, some brought about overnight by the pandemic, should be retained.
NHS Near Me and indeed telephone consultations have a role to play but the question is, to what degree?
The Scottish Government are exploring the extended use of NHS Near Me but in their report, published in March this year, even they admitted that “not all conditions or circumstances are appropriately managed through a remote video consultation.”
Indeed, I firmly believe that the traditional practice of a doctor breaking difficult news in person should remain the norm.
Receiving bad news about one’s health is challenging at the best of times. Many patients will be overcome by the news they receive and be completely unable to process what they are being told. Losing the human touch may result in some patients losing hope.
The physical presence of a face-to-face meeting is a vital source of support and reassurance for the patient when bad news is delivered. Disclosing a serious and perhaps life-threatening diagnosis remotely is in my mind something that has to be avoided.
Moving forward, patients must not be made to feel that the only option is to be given their diagnosis via video or telephone. Patients must be given the option of an in-person meeting with their GP or consultant and if in doubt the consultant needs to insist on a face to face meeting.
I accept fully that Near Me is here to stay and has a big role to play in NHS Highland’s remobilisation. However, we must never lose sight of what we need most during challenging times: each other.
Published in The Inverness Courier, 15 September 2021.