Nearly half of online GP firms – most of them offering webcam appointments – are unsafe, says the care watchdog.
Doctors are handing out addictive painkillers, antibiotics and medication for heart disease without carrying out proper checks.
Some companies are failing to ensure patients are over 18 before prescribing potentially dangerous drugs.
A report by the Care Quality Commission warns that 43 per cent of online GP firms operating in England are not providing safe care.
The care watchdog has found that nearly half of online GP firms are unsafe
The companies usually provide webcam – or ‘Skype’ – appointments in which a doctor tries to make a diagnosis. Others operate as a virtual pharmacy and allow patients to fill in a form that is checked by doctors before medications are prescribed.
Patients pay up to £25 for a ten-minute webcam appointment and can normally be seen within two hours. Many would otherwise have to wait up to three weeks for an appointment with a GP at their NHS surgery.
The watchdog carried out inspections of 40 online GP firms in England.
One of the main causes of concern was that GPs were prescribing medications too freely because they were not carrying out proper medical examinations. Doctors at one firm had prescribed powerful opioid painkillers to a patient for two years without telling the patient’s regular GP.
Doctors are handing out addictive painkillers, antibiotics and medication for heart disease without carrying out proper checks
Many other companies were found to be handing out anti-biotics too easily because doctors could not examine patients’ chest, ears or throat. GPs were also prescribing drugs for heart disease and diabetes without monitoring patients to ensure they were effective and not causing harmful side effects.
The CQC is particularly concerned that doctors working for these firms do not have access to patients’ medical records, which may limit their ability to make a diagnosis.
In many cases the doctors fail to contact the patients’ own GP afterwards and inform them about potentially worrying symptoms or medications prescribed.
Professor Steve Field, chief inspector of general practice at the Care Quality Commission, said: ‘While innovation should be encouraged, it must never come at the expense of quality
‘As with all health care services, patient safety must be at the heart of all decisions around what kind of care is offered and how it is delivered.’
The firms usually employ NHS GPs who work from home in between their normal surgery hours to earn extra cash. The CQC has been inspecting the firms since 2016 and carrying out follow-up checks. Despite the problems, the watchdog pointed out that many of the companies had improved standards since first inspected.
Professor Helen Stokes- Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘It’s very concerning to see that even now, 43 per cent of online consultation providers have been deemed unsafe in some respect.
‘The inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics, for example, poses risks to individuals but also is of great concern to the wider public – and the failure to share a patient’s data with their NHS GP could have a detrimental effect on their future care.’