Media’s bonfire of digital doctors obscures debate we must have on future of NHS

As the Mail announces ‘Victory for Mail’ in its war against digital doctors and securing petrol continues to be hit and miss, it feels like we’re moving into a seismic shift of contradictions in our ‘progress’ as a nation.

The Daily Mail's campaign fails to address the future of public health, argues Holly Sutton
The Daily Mail's campaign fails to address the future of public health, argues Holly Sutton

Capturing the mood of the moment quite incandescently, the Daily Mail belted out a blinder of a campaign with its recent incantation of a faithful tabloid favourite topic: patient vs. technology.

The Mail longed to take us back to the ‘good old days’ when the local doctor was more like Dr Brown Bear – popping round to dish out the medicine to Peppa Pig and George when they had a cold.

Such sentimentality is often contained in the red tops, but right now it’s spreading.

I was surprised to see Mind jumping in on it, with a survey-based release attesting to digital therapy as a potential harm to children’s mental health covered in The Times. The press release behind the story pointed to NHS job ads for ‘virtual therapists’ as a harbinger for an increasingly remote NHS that fails to meet young people’s mental health needs.

Nothing about how services such as Kooth and Togetherall have provided an absolute lifeline to both young people and the NHS through an early-stage focused digitised approach to mental health. Relieving the system upstream for more acute cases where younger people need urgent face-to-face care.

As excited as I am personally about the potential for digital to transform equity of access and quality of care within the NHS, I am deeply concerned that this opportunity will be hamstrung by the stories that are coming out now.

They are completely failing to capture the essential elements of the digital vs. face-to-face debate.

Where is the NHS’ voice in this? Where is the other side of the debate? It’s not being given a right to reply by the journalists writing this story.

We did not have enough trained clinicians nor the funding within our healthcare system to see everyone face to face pre-pandemic.

We’ve been shy of recruitment targets on GPs and mental healthcare clinicians since I started writing about workforce issues at the Health Service Journal in 2005.

Throw a global pandemic on top of this, with a two-year backlog of patients, and the system is set to break.

But it doesn’t have to. Digitising care for those with less acute needs, those people who don’t need to see a clinician, relieves the all-important face-to-face appointments where they’re needed.

Certainly, what pandemic-weary clinicians could do without right now is a media-led hate campaign about how they’re failing patients. Local practices are reporting increased violence and abuse of staff in practices since the Daily Mail’s campaign.

As other industries report raging salary inflation and NHS employees look set to pay for their own pay rises out of their NI increases, retaining the clinical staff we do have is looking increasingly precarious.

So, before more fuel is poured on the bonfire of the digital doctors, it might be prudent to ask – who will be to blame when patients in desperate need of face-to-face acute care can’t get it, as the worried well fill their jerry-cans with all available appointments?

Is it because of the Government, NHS providers, public or media?

Holly Sutton is communications partner at ZPB Associates

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