In the past eight years, Skype has enabled children to face-chat with parents out in the suburbs, and boys to talk to their girlfriends on a semester abroad in Beijing. But now, the video chat service promises to revolutionize one of the most fundamental services in society. At least in the U.K., the National Health Service (NHS) will be incorporating Skype and other online services as part of its modernization agenda.
"Once you have online consultations, it breaks down geographical boundaries," Professor Sir Bruce Keogh told the Times. "It opens up the specter of 24/7 access."
Incorporating new software, he said, will "completely change the way we deliver medicine."
Skype would allow patients to contact health experts with questions at any time, and chat to specialists in distant cities.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association told the Times that "If your child has a rash, your GP could look at it and say 'you need to come in' or 'you need to go to the hospital.' It may speed up the process."
But there are concerns that these services could minimize patients' access to their actual doctors, rerouting queries to overseas call centers or lower-level NHS employees.
In recent years, the NHS has announced several staff shortages. A lack of emergency care consultants has resulted in the closure of emergency rooms in certain hospitals, and patients seeking mental health therapy may have to wait up to three months.
The nursing workforce is also aging at an alarming rate. Twenty-four percent of registered nurses are set to retire in the next five years, and only one in eight nurses are under the age of 30. As a result, tens of thousands of cancer patients die in hospital beds, when they'd prefer to spend their last days at home.
While Skype could relieve some of these pressures, and streamline the bureaucracy of the system, it also risks replacing the human touch of a doctor, with the preprogrammed switchboarding of a screen. Patient advocates are hopeful, but hesitant.
"It should always be the choice of the individual," Murphy said.
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