Remote-by-Default Care in the COVID-19 Pandemic: addressing the micro, meso-, and macro-level challenges of a radical new service model

The ‘Remote by Default’ Covid-19 project, funded through the ESRC, is examining digital communications between patients and primary care practices. Led by Professor Trisha Greenhalgh from the University of Oxford, it also includes researchers from the Nuffield Trust. The project is seeking to: develop tools to help clinicians assess people effectively by phone or video; support the change process through action research; and strengthen the supporting infrastructure for digital innovation in the NHS.

Dr Sarah Rybczynska-Bunt and Professor Richard Byng are leading the Plymouth site which will focus on the impact of remote by default on inequalities. Investigation of the scale-up of ‘remote-by-default’ working, where patients can no longer automatically access face-to-face appointments, as a result of COVID-19 in Plymouth will help reveal any positive and negative impacts on individuals living in poverty or with complex needs. We will work closely with the ‘Deep End group of practices and Devon CCG.


Because COVID-19 is so contagious, the way the NHS works has changed dramatically. For the first time since 1948, you can’t walk into a GP surgery and ask to be seen. You must apply online, phone the surgery or contact NHS111. You may then get a call-back (phone or video) from a clinician, or a face-to-face appointment, possibly in a ‘hot hub’.

These changes to what used to be the family doctor service are radical. They cut to the core of what it is to care and be cared for, and what ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ health services look and feel like. Will the doctor be able to assess you properly by video or phone?

Using a variety of methods, we want to do three things:

  • Develop tools to help clinicians assess people effectively by phone or video;
  • Support the change process through ‘action research’ – that is, working with GP teams to collect relevant data, analyse it together and support its rapid use;
  • Using collaborative improvement techniques, strengthen the supporting infrastructure for digital innovation in the NHS.

Research questions:

1. How can technology support assessment and monitoring of patients at a distance?

2. How can we achieve rapid spread and scale up of remote-by-default models of primary care?

3. What insights can we glean from this time of crisis that will help build a more resilient NHS?

Outline methods:

1. Tools: Qualitative research to develop instruments followed by quantitative validation studies.

2. Implementation and scale-up: Four contrasting case studies in different localities. Action research (informed by interviews, ethnography, documents, datasets) by virtual researchers-in-residence.

3. Workshops and scenario-testing: Involving policymakers, regulators, professional bodies, industry, patients/citizens, to identify ways to strengthen infrastructure for rapid change.


1. At least two evidence-based assessment tools: qualitative (for remote assessment of key prognostic symptoms) and quantitative (a COVID-19-specific early warning score).

2. Transferable lessons about how to achieve rapid spread and scale-up, spread in real time through our extensive intersectoral networks.

3. Strengthened infrastructure for supporting digital innovation in the NHS.

Centre for Health Technology

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<p>Online tele medicine isometric concept. Medical consultation and treatment via application of smartphone connected internet clinic.<br></p>