Patients are being offered Skype appointments in some clinics at Queen Victoria Hospital.
The appointments at the hospital, which helps patients across the South of England and further afield, are part of a trial aimed at improving patient experience and accessibility to its services.
Skype appointments are being rolled out in three of the hospital’s specialty areas, facial palsy therapy, burns therapy and hand therapy.
These clinics provide rehabilitation services to people across the country who have been significantly affected by life changing accidents, conditions or disorders. It means many patients will now benefit from fewer hospital visits.
Only patients who meet a set of strict criteria will be offered Skype appointments at this stage.
Patients will not be seen ‘virtually’ for their first appointment, for example.
Marc Tramontin, QVH therapy services manager, said: “Improving the patient experience is one of our top priorities.
"Some of our patients travel extremely long distances to be treated here, and offering them ‘virtual’ appointments will not only help to reduce the stress that’s so often associated with travel, but save them time and money too.
"Research shows the standard of clinical care is not compromised by delivering services in this way which is also extremely important.
“It’s hoped these clinics will reduce the number of on-the-day cancellations, which increase waiting times and are costly. They’ll also help to reduce patients’ reliance on hospital transport and lead to fewer vehicles using the car park which can be busy at times.”
Janet Robb, 43, travels to Queen Victoria Hospital from Belfast to receive treatment for facial palsy. She often has to block out two days to attend a one-hour appointment because of flight times from there. Janet has had two surgeries at the hospital and attends for regular follow-up therapy. So far she has had two appointments with her QVH therapist via Skype.
She said: “I have facial palsy after contracting Lyme disease in 2013 and, after struggling to get treatment back home, I was eventually referred to QVH about three years ago. There are no words to explain what it felt like for someone to finally understand the pain and psychological issues that come with a diagnosis of facial palsy.
“I’ve had two big surgeries. When you’ve gone home you’re frightened because you’re away from your medical team. You wonder ‘what if something happens because your local doctor doesn’t know what to do with it?’
“And then there are the trips for ongoing treatment. Psychologically, having facial palsy is pretty rubbish but add to that having to make the long journey for therapy – you’ve nobody to hold your hand, it’s lonely. My mood is low and there are usually tears, these trips are difficult.
“I’m presently travelling to East Grinstead every three months. It’s usually a two-day trip for what’s sometimes a half hour appointment and as you can imagine, it’s expensive. You can claim your expenses in Northern Ireland, but it’s a long, drawn out, stressful process and you never get the full amount.
“I’ve had two Skype appointments so far, the first was post-surgery a couple of months ago. It was so great to be able to talk to someone that understood, who was able to tell me what I was feeling in my face was normal, what I should expect, what my exercises should be. I was still recovering and I was so tired and weak – if I’d had to travel, I would not have attended that appointment. To have my therapist smile at me on the camera and reassure me was invaluable.
“I don’t feel I’m missing out on my therapy by being on screen. Many of my appointments are visual not manual assessments; the therapist wouldn’t be touching my face even if I was in the room.
“My dream is to be able to access the treatment I need closer to home but until then, having access to these specialists without having to travel is a pot of gold.”
The trial is expected to last at least three months. It is hoped virtual clinics will be rolled out to other departments and services in due course.