MORE efficient and speedy, in less than 12 months the Great Western Hospital’s pioneering virtual clinics have transformed patient consultations, saving health services around £500,000 in the process.

Patients previously had to wait weeks and even months to receive the results of their blood tests, scans or x-rays following a consultation at a follow-up appointment.

Now the hospital has dispensed with the second often unnecessary appointment when- ever appropriate.

Instead GWH has introduced virtual clinics, meaning that consultants across a variety of specialties set aside time to analyse the results in their own time instead of discussing them at a face-to-face follow-up consultation. They then contact patients via mail or on the phone if their results came back negative – a process until then performed ad hoc and not systematically.

This has allowed staff to free up slots for and give priority to cancer patients or urgent cases.

The new system has allowed staff to make time to contact patients deemed ‘in the clear’ who too often were left waiting for months if their results did not require further action.

Thanks to the new virtual clinics – some of the very first piloted in the entire country – which have been rolled out to half the hospital’s departments since April,12,000 out of the 350,000 patients normally seen in clinics will have received a virtual ‘consultation’ by the end of the financial year.

Rupert Beck, consultant urological surgeon, was one of the front runners of the virtual clinic movement at GWH.

“We see a fair number of people whose tests, we are certain, are not going to show anything, but they come to the hospital for reassurance,” he said. “They then had to come back for the results. The difficulty was that we didn’t have enough clinic slots to see the follow-up patients so it had a snowballing effect.

“And every week we get about 300 or 400 results just in urology.

“If we needed to see the patient, if they needed to get more tests, they got an appointment. If the results came back normal patients would have to wait and wondered what was happening. This meant that some people were waiting sometimes six months for their results.

“The virtual clinic is an attempt to do this follow-up system in a proper way. If we think we can make a decision on the basis of the test results, they get a virtual clinic appointment. We have 12 slots a week per consultant. They don’t physically attend but I do what I would at a clinic, I look at the results and just send them a letter saying they don’t need further tests.

“It allows us to see urgent cases and cancer patients more quickly and reduce risk.”

On average each month more than 1,000 virtual contacts are made with patients.

The new process allows patients to receive their test results after just two or three weeks.

David Moss, deputy general manager for diagnostics and outpatients, said: “It is better for patients and we find that, with mobile phones and the internet or social media, people are accepting that you can communicate differently. It does not have to be face-to-face.

“We are looking at rolling it out to diabetes and rheumatology clinics next and in the future maybe using Skype for specialists like dermatology. It has been very positive.”