Primary care, on many occasions in a chronic context of precariousness and lack of resources, has played a dual role: diagnosing and monitoring COVID-19 patients who did not require hospitalization (the vast majority) and maintaining the rest of the essential services, being of special importance the follow-up of patients with chronic diseases and non-delayable and urgent cases. Among these transformations, the most radical was the overnight change in the conditions of access to primary care services. In a matter of weeks, primary care went from being fundamentally face-to-face to being almost exclusively virtual with the aim to preventing infections in health centres and protecting both patients and health professionals.
Virtual primary care is here to stay
The combination of various modes of provision of primary care services is a reality. These include face-to-face visits, both in health centres and in homes or community activities; face-to-face visits by mobile teams, especially in rural settings; and virtual visits (online appointment systems, telephone consultations, videoconferences, SMS, emails). All of them constitute a fundamental feature of primary care for the present and the future.
For this reason, and after more than two years of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to analyze international experiences to ensure that virtual primary care contributes to reducing inequalities in access to primary care services and to improving its quality.
This is the intention of an outstanding report published earlier this year by the Nuffield Trust and written by Dr Charlotte Paddison and Isabelle McGill entitled "Digital primary care: Improving access for all?". The authors carried out a quick review of the national (United Kingdom) and international evidence published during the years 2020 and 2021, which yields a series of important messages, which are highlighted below.
First, patients with the least need for health care, young people and people of high socioeconomic status are the most likely to benefit from virtual access to primary care. This constitutes a new form of the "inverse care law" and can enhance health inequalities since those groups that have worse health and greater health needs (people with socio-economic vulnerability, ethnic minorities and people with cognitive or communication difficulties) can see their access negatively affected. Regarding Catalonia, a recently published study concluded that remote consultations tripled during the first three months of the pandemic. Most users were predominantly female, systematically younger, more actively employed, and with less complex pathologies. This helped mitigate, to some extent, the decline in face-to-face visits in younger age groups, but also suggests that profiles with greater clinical and social complexity benefit less from non-face-to-face visits.
Secondly, virtual primary care may lead to the replacement of some access barriers (distance, time, transport problems) by others (internet access, digital skills, device capacity). The report includes an staggering fact about the United Kingdom: almost two million people do not have access to the internet and cannot afford it, so they are automatically excluded from online care.
However, the review also shows optimistic results. In situations where digital tools improve the accessibility of primary care, such tools can lead to improvements not only in access but also in the quality of care. Choosing between different consultation modalities can benefit patients who were previously disadvantaged in face-to-face primary care in two ways: by overcoming geographic barriers to access and by promoting patient autonomy. Particularly in the field of mental health, evidence shows that remote consultations increase the contact time that these patients can have with their primary care provider, in addition to expanding the scope of programs run by specialized mental health services.
Three recommendations to overcome the digital divide
The report also points out a series of recommendations for decision-makers interested in getting the most out of digital tools in primary care, while also addressing inequalities in access.
- Commit to the right goal: to ensure that all citizens can access primary care under equal conditions.
- Asses the impact that the change in access conditions may have on different groups of patients and clearly, identify potential “winners and losers”.
- Introduce virtual primary care, so that it never reduces the possibilities of access but rather contributes to increasing and personalizing them based on the individual characteristics of each patient and the dynamics of use by different groups. In this sense, studies such as the one cited above from Catalonia, which characterize the profiles that most actively use teleconsultation and other virtual care tools, are essential.
In this process, primary care professionals must play a fundamental role in three areas: understanding the needs of their population, addressing access barriers by co-designing inclusive access to clinical circuits, and ensuring that access modalities are customised appropriately.
Virtuality must be a means to reduce inequalities and increase the quality
Although not mentioned in the report, it is vitally important for policymakers to study the context in which primary care services operate, before jumping into the introduction of digital solutions. Virtual primary care should never be seen as an alternative to strengthening primary care with sufficient human resources. In addition, there is a sort of magical thinking about the time that digital tools and telematic care can save health professionals. This can end up overloading, even more, the workload of primary care professionals that isin a state of chronic unsustainability in many European countries. In Spain, the expansion of the use of remote care not only did not decrease but rather increased the work of primary care professionals. For example, since September 2020, the increase in e-consultations has not been associated with a decrease in face-to-face consultations. This increases the total number of consultations and the workload of PC professionals by adding telematic attention to the face-to-face consultations already existing. In addition, increased accessibility often goes hand in hand with increased demand, which in turn requires increased triage and demand management efforts (and resources) to prevent delays in the attention of the most relevant problems. Finally, the digital skills of professionals must be at the centre of any virtual care development strategy.
Virtual primary care should never be an end in itself, but rather a means to a greater purpose: to reduce inequalities in access to the health system and improve the quality of service provision.
José Cerezo Cerezo is health policy analyst and works as a consultant for the WHO European Center for Primary Health Care and the WHO Barcelona Office for the Financing of Health Systems.