Through the recent coronavirus pandemic, our use of — and reliance upon — internet technologies has grown considerably. With widespread lockdowns imposed around the world, we’ve had little choice but to turn to online services for our work and day-to-day interactions.

The rise of internet technologies has been extensive across all industries, but perhaps none more so than in the realm of healthcare. As patients worried about overloading already-stressed healthcare systems, and doctors advised against all but essential appointments, people increasingly turned to digital services for the prognosis of their ailments.

The prevalence of technology in healthcare

While the idea of using online services for our well-being might seem a little futuristic, the truth is a massive amount of our existing healthcare system is already digital. For example, these days it’s possible to order a repeat prescription from the doctor without even going anywhere near the surgery. With enhanced patient records, doctors can prescribe medicines based on their patients’ previous history.

Furthermore, the prognosis of most common ailments can be done quite easily over the phone — or better yet, via video call — raising the question of whether there’s any need for the majority of cases to be diagnosed in-person at a medical practice.

Indeed, even training to become a medical practitioner is increasingly moving online. It’s now possible to study an entire nursing degree over the internet — everything from the popular BSN to MSN qualifications (Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Master of Science in Nursing, respectively).

The benefits of online consultations

The majority of people already own at least one internet-connected device, whether that be a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop, and most of these devices have a webcam installed. Most of us already have the technology to make internet surgeries work and there are multiple advantages to be had in using online services, both from both a patient and practitioner point of view:

• Eases pressure on healthcare systems. While it could be argued the time taken for an online consultation should be the same as one off-line, fewer people appearing at the surgery reduces the time spent by secretaries and receptionists booking appointments and greeting patients as they arrive. This frees up support staff to concentrate on other duties.

• Convenience. Using a camera-enabled web device, patients can have a consultation within minutes rather than having to make the journey to the surgery and wait for their allotted appointment time.

• Speed. There is a far quicker turnaround in online appointments than there is with off-line, and patients can schedule a time convenient to them, even if they’re at work.

• Flexibility. From a doctor’s point of view, being able to conduct consultations online allows them a better work/life balance as appointments can be scheduled without the typical working hours of medical surgeries.

• An end to Google self-diagnosis. We’ve all done it — looked up Google for advice on an ailment and ended up reading information entirely inappropriate for our actual condition. Having access to a skilled online doctor is a quick and easy way to get practical analysis of medical conditions without the stress of incorrectly diagnosing ourselves.

The drawbacks of digital consultations

Clearly, internet appointments aren’t for everyone and there are some drawbacks, particularly for older people or those less comfortable with technology.

• Healthcare for the many, not the few. The elderly or disabled may have problems using smart devices or internet technologies to make appointments. Additionally, those with hearing or sight issues may find online consultations difficult. It will be essential to ensure real-world healthcare is still available to those less able or less competent with newer technologies.

• Moving to an online-only service. Most internet medical services require you to de-register from your current real-world practice, reducing options if you need in-person attention (though a physical diagnosis is still possible at a pharmacy or hospital).

• A perceived lack of empathy. Many people find communicating online through a screen very impersonal, and should you be in the position where your doctor has bad news, it’s usually best-delivered face to face.

• Some conditions need a physical diagnosis. Evidence suggests around three-quarters of all typical healthcare problems seen at medical clinics could be diagnosed online; however, some complaints still need a physical examination and are clearly not possible over the internet.

The truth is, we already have the technologies to allow for online healthcare and many common conditions could easily be diagnosed online. Perhaps the deciding factor in the success (or failure) of internet healthcare will be down more to the opinion of its users rather than a question of its capabilities.

For example, in a recent survey conducted in the UK, a staggering 96% of respondents replied they would not be happy registering with an online surgery and would instead prefer the more traditional face-to-face appointment with their doctor.

If internet consultations are to take off, it seems the medical industry may have some work to do to convince us, its patients, of the merits and safety of online services.