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Doctors to launch webcam surgeries

Online consultation experiment to launch next year, allowing patients to get medical help without leaving their home

DOCTORS in France could start offering consultations over the internet, using webcams and instant messenger, from early next year.

Health minister Roselyne Bachelot believes online surgeries could offer a solution to the growing problem of GP shortages in rural areas.

Patients would log in to a secure website, where their GP will ask a series of questions about their condition by instant messenger, or using a webcam where possible.

Doctors could then send a prescription by email or post to the patient, or directly to their local pharmacy.

The consultation would cost the same as an ordinary face-to-face appointment - currently €22.

The level of reimbursement from the Assurance Maladie would be higher in areas with the biggest shortage of practising doctors.

A government decree authorising the online consultations has been published in the Journal Officiel.

The experiment will be managed on a regional level by the network of Agences Régionales de Santé.

Some doctors have found it difficult to take the announcement seriously and have expressed concern about the accuracy of an online diagnosis.

One GP in Brittany told Le Télégramme that the idea was "nonsense": "A consultation isn't just an exchange of information: it's a physical examination. We need to listen to how someone is breathing, for example," he said.

"Sometimes we deal with people we know over the phone, but I wouldn't call that a consultation: it's just dispensing medical advice."

GPs' union the Syndicat des Médecins Libéraux said online consultations would create "big problems" and there was a serious risk of making an incorrect diagnosis.

The Conseil National de l'Ordre des Médecins (Cnom) said it was satisfied with the development.

However, it added: "No technology can replace human contact, which must remain the foundation of medical practice."

Cnom produces an annual atlas on the spread of doctors in France and is concerned about "medical desert" areas.

Overall, 19 of the 22 regions saw a drop in doctors between 2008 and 2009, although France still numbers an average of 290 doctors per 100,000 people, compared to 249 in the UK.

The atlas can be seen at in the "Démographie" section.

Related story:
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