Objectives: To test the hypotheses that virtual outreach would reduce offers of hospital follow-up appointments and reduce numbers of medical interventions and investigations, reduce numbers of contacts with the health care system, have a positive impact on patient satisfaction and enablement, and lead to improvements in patient health status. To perform an economic evaluation of virtual outreach.
Design: A randomised controlled trial comparing joint teleconsultations between GPs, specialists and patients with standard outpatient referral. It was accompanied by an economic evaluation.
Setting: The trial was centred on the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, London, and the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital Trust in Shropshire. The project teams recruited and trained a total of 134 GPs from 29 practices and 20 consultant specialists.
Participants: In total, 3170 patients were referred, of whom 2094 consented to participate in the study and were eligible for inclusion. In all, 1051 patients were randomised to the virtual outreach group and 1043 to standard outpatient appointments. The patients were followed 6 months after their index consultation.
Interventions: Patients randomised to virtual outreach underwent a joint teleconsultation, in which they attended the general practice surgery where they and their GP consulted with a hospital specialist via a videolink between the hospital and the practice.
Main outcome measures: Outcome measures included offers of follow-up outpatient appointments, numbers of tests, investigations, procedures, treatments and contacts with primary and secondary care, patient satisfaction (Ware Specific Visit Questionnaire), enablement (Patient Enablement Instrument) and quality of life (Short Form-12 and Child Health Questionnaire). An economic evaluation of the costs and consequences of the intervention was undertaken. Sensitivity analysis was used to test the robustness of the results.
Results: Patients in the virtual outreach group were more likely to be offered a follow-up appointment. Significant differences in effects were observed between the two sites and across different specialities. Virtual outreach increased the offers of follow-up appointments more in Shrewsbury than in London, and more in ENT and orthopaedics than in the other specialities. Fewer tests and investigations were ordered in the virtual outreach group, by an average of 0.79 per patient. In the 6-month period following the index consultation, there were no significant differences overall in number of contacts with general practice, outpatient visits, accident and emergency contacts, inpatient stays, day surgery and inpatient procedures or prescriptions between the randomised groups. Tests of interaction indicated that virtual outreach decreased the number of tests and investigations, particularly in patients referred to gastroenterology, and increased the number of outpatient visits, particularly in those referred to orthopaedics. Patient satisfaction was greater after a virtual outreach consultation than after a standard outpatient consultation, with no heterogeneity between specialities or sites. However, patient enablement after the index consultation, and the physical and psychological scores of the Short Form-12 for adults and the scores on the Child Health Questionnaire for children under 16, did not differ between the randomised groups at 6 months' follow-up. NHS costs over 6 months were greater for the virtual outreach consultations than for conventional outpatients, pound 724 and pound 625 per patient, respectively. The index consultation accounted for this excess. Cost and time savings to patients were found. Estimated productivity losses were also less in the virtual outreach group.
Conclusions: Virtual outreach consultations result in significantly higher levels of patient satisfaction than standard outpatient appointments and lead to substantial reductions in numbers of tests and investigations, but they are variably associated with increased rates of offer of follow-up according to speciality and site. Changes in costs and technological advances may improve the relative position of virtual consultations in future. The extent to which virtual outreach is implemented will probably be dependent on factors such as patient demand, costs, and the attitudes of staff working in general practice and hospital settings. Further research could involve long-term follow-up of patients in the virtual outreach trial to determine downstream outcomes and costs; further study into the effectiveness and costs of virtual outreach used for follow-up appointments, rather than first-time referrals; and whether the costs of virtual outreach could be substantially reduced without adversely affecting the quality of the consultation if nurses or other members of the primary care team were to undertake the hosting of the joint teleconsultations in place of the GP. Qualitative work into the attitudes of the patients, GPs and hospital specialists would also be valuable.