BACKGROUND: The level of demand on primary care continues to increase. Electronic or e-consultations enable patients to consult their GP online and have been promoted as having potential to improve access and efficiency. AIM: To evaluate whether an e-consultation system improves the ability of practice staff to manage workload and access. DESIGN AND SETTING: A qualitative interview study in general practices in the West of England that piloted an e-consultation system for 15 months during 2015 and 2016. METHOD: Practices were purposefully sampled by location and level of e-consultation use. Clinical, administrative, and management staff were recruited at each practice. Interviews were transcribed and analysed thematically. RESULTS: Twenty-three interviews were carried out across six general practices. Routine e-consultations offered benefits for the practice because they could be completed without direct contact between GP and patient. However, most e-consultations resulted in GPs needing to follow up with a telephone or face-to-face appointment because the e-consultation did not contain sufficient information to inform clinical decision making. This was perceived as adding to the workload and providing some patients with an alternative route into the appointment system. Although this was seen as offering some patient benefit, there appeared to be fewer benefits for the practices. CONCLUSION: The experiences of the practices in this study demonstrate that the technology, in its current form, fell short of providing an effective platform for clinicians to consult with patients and did not justify their financial investment in the system. The study also highlights the challenges of remote consultations, which lack the facility for real time interactions.
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