Telephone and digital communication will play a growing role in how patients in north Cumbria interact with the NHS, healthcare bosses have said.

Senior figures at the North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust and the North Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group, which together oversee NHS services in the north of the county, have spoken of the increasingly important role telephone, video and other online communication will play when connecting clinical staff with patients.

Dean Oliver, executive director for performance and improvement at the NCIC trust, addressed the rising focus it is paying to communication technology.

"The trust is committed to making the most out of digital technology, where this is in the best interests, first and foremost, of patient care," he said.

"Indeed the recent pandemic that we've all been through, nationwide, has really forced the issue to create additional opportunities to look at the digital agenda a lot more broadly."

He added that the Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a "stimulus", encouraging the trust to place a greater focus on technology.

Mr Oliver, who was speaking at last week's joint annual general meeting and annual members meeting between the NCIC trust and the north Cumbria CCG, pointed to several areas which have recently seen more use of technology, such as maternity services and outpatient clinic follow-up appointments.

He said that consultations taking place over the phone, via video or otherwise brings a number of benefits to patients.

"The patient doesn't need to spend time travelling, doesn't need to spend time fighting with hospital car parks, doesn't need to worry about cross-infection rates," he said.

"From the trust's point of view, we can look at how we can make efficiencies around how we can have increased capacity that we can use and harness, and redeploy that capacity in other areas in frontline services.

"This not only benefits frontline services, it benefits patient care."

Naturally, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the growth of digital technology adoption across the NHS, in a number of settings.

One example that has been of great value to patients in hospital throughout the pandemic has been the growth of "virtual visitors", where video messaging technology has helped loved ones stay in touch in spite of suspended in-person visiting.

"We're also really keen to explore the use of clinical instant messaging tools," Mr Oliver added.

Dr Helen Horton is the GP lead for commissioning, and clinical lead for health pathways at the North Cumbria CCG.

She said that GPs in north Cumbria has begun to embrace these changes before the beginning of the pandemic, but that Covid-19 has "sped up the process".

"There was a tentative start with online consulting," she said.

"But obviously since the pandemic, everything has sped up.

"Primary care has changed how it works, and we are going with a much more technological approach."

Dr Horton said that video and online consultations are now being quickly adopted, with GPs now able to receive photographs sent to them by patients to help with a diagnosis.

One recent change is that operators for the NHS 111 advice system can now directly book or add patients into a GP service for either appointments or telephone consultations.

"We also have care homes with iPads, so we can do online consulting," Dr Horton said, adding this was especially useful when responding to an out-of-hours issue, or if the care home had been hit with a Covid-19 outbreak."

Dr Horton said that the pandemic had "changed dramatically" how GPs work.

"There was a lot of work already going on, but the Covid pandemic has pushed the digital agenda quite far forward quite quickly."