Last week, the NHS published its long-term plan setting out how it intends to allocate an extra £2.5bn in funding. One of the major themes of the technology was a “digital first” option, in which a greater emphasis is placed on patients receiving care remotely. In other words, rather than going to a doctor’s office or hospital for appointments, an increasing number of non-urgent appointments could be done while at home.

But will seeing a physician through a screen rather than face-to-face be beneficial for patients? A recent study has found this to be the case.

A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) looked into whether virtual doctors visits, personal video chat communications between health professionals and patients using a computer or tablet, can be used without compromising the quality of care.

Surveying 254 patients who had taken part in virtual doctors visits via video in areas including psychiatry, neurology, cardiology, primary care, and oncology as part of the MGH TeleHealth Program the results were positive. Researchers found that 62% of patients said that the quality of virtual video visits was no different from that of office visits, and 21% thought virtual doctors visits’ overall quality was better.

In terms of convenience, 79% of respondents said that finding a convenient time for a follow-up virtual video visit was easier than for a traditional office visit.

As 68% of patients rated virtual video visits at nine or 10 on a 10-point scale, the research suggests that not seeing a doctor face-to-face does not significantly impact the quality of care. In fact, in some cases such as patients who live in remote locations, or those who have to visit a physician frequently, it may be beneficial. Furthermore, with health services more overstretched than ever, it may also streamline appointments.

Although remote visits are not appropriate for all patients in all situations, 70.5% of clinicians surveyed reported that virtual video visits are better than office visits in terms of timely scheduling of patient appointments and 52.5% said they were better for visit efficiency.

Karen Donelan, a senior scientist at the Mongan Institute Health Policy Center and lead author of the paper, said:

“Some of the participants in our study were parents of children who needed multiple frequent visits or older patients for whom travel was difficult to arrange. It did not surprise us that they found virtual visits more convenient, but we were impressed that nearly all perceived the quality of care or communication to be the same or better than at the traditional and familiar office visits.”

The study may have important lessons for a future in which several different ways of communicating – such as text, video, online, home and office visits – are available for patients and gives insight into how best to tailor medical care to patient need.

Lee Schwamm, director of the MGH Center for TeleHealth, the MGH Comprehensive StrokeCenter, and executive vice chairman of the Department of Neurology, believes that for patients, the quality of the interaction with the doctor is more important than how that interaction takes place:

 “Our findings confirm what I felt in my gut, which is that what patients’ value most is uninterrupted time with their doctor, and they put up with all the other challenges required to come to see us…95% of the time spent by the patient is face-to-face with the doctor, compared to less than 20% of a traditional visit, in which most time is spent travelling and waiting. Seen through that lens, our results are not surprising.”