Online service focuses on gynaecological health issues
Leading gynaecologist Dr Karen Morton thinks there's demand for more convenient access to women's health experts. She tells Abi Jackson why she hopes her paid-for helpline will empower thousands
OF ALL the health queries we chuck at Dr Google, women's health issues top the list.
In fact, things relating just to women are Googled more often in Britain and Northern Ireland than very common ailments like coughs, colds and rashes (endometriosis – a condition, believed to affect one in 10 women, where endometrial tissue, the inner womb lining, also grows outside the womb, is among the most-searched health term, with around 90,500 searches a month).
It's something leading UK gynaecologist Dr Karen Morton, and her team at the Dr Morton's medical helpline, is hoping to address. One of a handful of private digital GP practices that have cropped up over the past couple of years, offering people the chance to gain quick, convenient access to doctors via paid-for phone or email consultations (some services even do video link-ups, though Dr Morton's doesn't currently), she says it was "always my intention" the helpline would eventually "have an emphasis on women's health".
"We wanted to get the general practice service sorted first, and then really claim the women's health space, because I'm passionate about empowering women to get on with their lives," explains Dr Morton, who has 25 years' experience working across both the NHS and private sector.
The growth of online private services may not only play a role in helping relieve the burden on the NHS, and offer greater convenience to people who'd rather pay for an appointment if it means they don't have to wait for weeks and clear space in their diary to get there – but in terms of women's health, the benefits might go even further.
The Google stats, Dr Morton points out, are evidence that lots of women have unanswered questions about their health. While they're significantly more likely to go and see their GP than men (70 per cent of all GP appointments are for women), females are also famous 'putter-uppers', and often don't want to make a fuss.
And gynaecology is a field where there are many things that while not medically serious, can have a tremendous impact on somebody's life (menopause symptoms, problematic periods...), and can cause immense worry if somebody doesn't really understand what's going on, especially, for example, if women are concerned about their future fertility, or cancer.
An obvious criticism of paid-for internet GP services is that talking to a patient over the phone can never fully match seeing them in the flesh. As well as physical examinations being impossible, somebody's physical appearance or mood, for instance, might reveal potentially relevant insights. Dr Morton is well aware of this fact, but is confident the benefits outweigh any cons.
Of the 13 or so patients she saw in her gynae clinic this morning, for example, at least a few of them had problems they'd been "fobbed off" with by their GP.
"I'm not knocking GPs – the GP brief is far too big. They can't possibly be experts in specialist fields and gynaecology, in some regards, is a specialist field," she says, adding that while of course she can't perform surgery over the phone, she can advise "really clearly" on what to do next.
In many ways, this is the crux of what Dr Morton's helpline is offering women – knowing they're paying for an expert's time, and they can ask all their questions and raise all of their concerns (there's no time limit on phone calls – they last as long as the customers need).
Something like urinary incontinence – which affects a significant number of women to varying degrees – might be a good example. "A lot of people feel they're wasting GPs' time, because they leak urine when they cough, sneeze and jump, and they think, 'Is this bad enough for me to go and speak to my GP about, because they're so busy?' And that's a tragedy, really, because we only get one life," says Dr Morton.
"And there are lots of things with women where confidence becomes zapped because of leakage or something like that, or because they're having such dreadful hot flushes in the workplace, and so their confidence deteriorates."
Where physical examinations, or scans and tests, are deemed necessary, referrals can be issued for customers with health insurance, and for those without, Dr Morton explains they will write a letter for the person to take to their GP, so they can request an NHS referral.
"Hopefully we will have empowered them [to go and have that conversation with their GP]," says Dr Morton.
"Empowerment is a really big word in our service," she adds. "It means a great deal to get a bit of reassurance from an expert viewpoint, just to help people really understand their health, what questions to ask next and what their options are."
And for those who feel they just have to "put up" with something, there might be surprisingly simple – but life-changing – solutions, if only somebody had the chance to properly talk it through. Even when there really isn't much that can be done, just "understanding it more" could bring psychological relief.
"Knowledge," says Dr Morton, "is power".
:: Dr Morton's gynaecologists are available between 7pm-11pm Monday to Friday, and 11am-3pm on weekends. Phone consultations, £50; email consultations, £25. For more information, visit www.drmortons.co.uk