In August 2017 the Care Quality Commission (CQC) had rated just three out of 17 online primary care services providers as having met the required safety standards. As the CQC does not have the legal powers to give online services an overall rating as it does with GP practices they have instead rated them by giving them a pass or fail to five key questions:

  • Whether the service is safe?
  • Whether the service is effective?
  • Whether the service is responsive?
  • Whether the service is caring?
  • Whether the service is well-led?

It would then take action against those online providers which it deemed to be unsafe.

This however is about to change as on 26 January the CQC published proposals setting out how it intends to develop its next stage of regulation for independent healthcare services.

Commenting on the proposals, Sir David Behan, Chief Executive at the CQC said:

The proposals we are consulting on today clarify how we plan to award ratings to those providers that we have been given additional powers to rate following our inspections, such as cosmetic surgery, termination of pregnancy and substance misuse clinics, independent doctors – including those that provide primary care online – and independent community healthcare service..

The key proposals outlined in the consultation are:

  • Ratings of outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate to independent providers
  • Development of ‘CQC insight’ – a data monitoring tool to help inform decisions about when and where to inspect
  • Changes to the core services that CQC assesses during its inspections of independent community hospitals and community health services
  • Introduction of a ‘community single speciality’ as a new core service for some independent community healthcare services

The need for well-run online services is certainly compelling, patients are looking for services which they can access remotely at a time convenient to them. In addition, patients will want to be reassured that the service they are receiving is subject to the same regulatory governance as when they see a GP within the usual practice setting. It is therefore important that the focus on regulation is on patient safety and this works in harmony with the inevitable growth of digital primary healthcare both within the NHS and also the private setting.

Although some types of independent providers are already rated by the CQC (including independent hospitals). The proposed changes will mean that other independent clinics providing cosmetic surgery, refractive eye surgery, sexual health services and diagnostic imaging will also now be rated and it will these independent clinics will need to ensure that they have appropriate clinical governance processes in place to ensure that they will perform well in inspections.

Consistency in ratings between providers will also enable to the public to be able to compare services in a meaningful way.

The consultation is now open and will close on 23 March 2018. The outcome will be published in approximately June where more detail will be provided as to the timing of the proposals.