There has been a 280% increase in the number of patients attending virtual clinics with their GPs during the Covid-19 crisis, according to a nationwide survey by Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software.

Lero, a world leader in connected-health and ehealth research, commissioned RED C Research to conduct the survey from October  8th to 13th  2020. More than 1,000 people participated in the study which found that before Covid-19 only 5% of people had attended a virtual clinic with their GP, but this sky-rocketed to 19% of the adult population during the pandemic – a 280% increase.

Lero Director, Professor Brian Fitzgerald said the results show that when presented with a health access difficulty Irish people will avail of virtual solutions.

“From a very low base of just one in 20 people choosing to see their GP virtually over the Internet before the Covid-19 crisis, this jumped to four out of 20 very quickly, when a connected solution was available,” he added.

Lero principal investigator, Professor Ita Richardson, from the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems at the University of Limerick, said: 

“Like other domains, healthcare is being transformed through the implementation of digital solutions. The survey results show us that the Irish population is prepared to go with this, as long as there is an awareness of regulations, privacy and security. And, it is obvious that digital solutions can only support healthcare – there is still a need for patient-clinician face-to-face consultation.”

The Lero survey found that prior to the Covid-19 crisis just one in ten people (11%) surveyed had participated in any virtual consultation with a range of health professionals including with a GP, consultant, pharmacist, physiotherapist or mental healthcare professional. This increased to 29% during the crisis.

Half of the Irish population, precisely 50%, said that in the future they were likely to participate in a virtual health clinic, with just 27% unlikely to do so and 23% neither likely nor unlikely.

Seven out of ten people (71%) favour the electronic storage of their personal health records that are accessible by them and their doctors, the survey revealed, with just 14% opposing the idea, and 15% answered ‘don’t know’.

However, this is a decrease from two years ago when a similar Lero survey, conducted by RED C in June 2018, found that 81% of the population supported a personal electronic health record that could be accessed by their GP and hospitals.

Of the 1,000 plus people surveyed about virtual clinics, 56% had concerns about privacy and security while 26% did not have such problems. Of those who attended virtual clinics, 70% found them excellent or good, according to the October 2020 survey, while 84% believe medics would get a better understanding of their condition in an in-person consultation.

Furthermore, 87% of people feel that virtual clinics exclude people who do not have access to the appropriate technology (such as webcams or broadband), while 83% feel they exclude people who are not confident in using the technology. However, 64% feel they are more convenient than in-person consultations and 70% believe they take less time.

Half of those surveyed (53%) think virtual clinics where they “meet/consult” with a medical professional in a non-face-to-face manner, for example, using phone, video or other online medium is a good idea while 32% think it is not a good idea.

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • 71% of those survey believe the introduction of electronic health records will improve the Irish health care system, 8% disagreed, while 21% neither agreed nor disagreed.
  • 90% believe the introduction of electronic health records would have to be accompanied by strong cybersecurity measures. Just 2% disagreed, while 8% neither agreed nor disagreed.
  • More than half of respondents (57%) would not be comfortable with their health records being shared with ‘family and friends electronically’ while 28% favoured the sharing of records in this way. With 15% neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

RED C interviewed a random nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults aged 18+ online between 8th and 13th October 2020. Interviews were conducted online and the results weighted to the profile of all adults.