THE doctor will see you now.

It is a phrase that women in rural parts of Scotland are getting used to hearing – after NHS Highland and Greater Glasgow and Clyde introduced a virtual antenatal clinic from the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley.

Under current arrangements women in Argyll are patients of NHS Highland but receive consultant antenatal care from NHSGGC staff.

Until recently this meant a Consultant Obstetrician making a 180-mile round trip once a week from Glasgow to Oban to see patients at various stages of their pregnancy.

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However, expectant mothers in the region are now interacting with their consultant via computer, using a secure videolink system similar to Factime.

Similar telehealth schemes have previously launched in other rural areas around the world, such as the Australian outback.

The virtual antenatal clinics are run over the internet from the doctor's clinic in Paisley.

Dr Liz Blair feels both staff and women are reaping the benefits since its introduction last December.

Dr Blair said: “As it’s mostly young women I am seeing, they are already used to this type of technology and don’t seem fazed by it at all.

“Before I ‘see’ each woman I chat through things on screen with the woman’s midwife, who will already have carried out the usual checks on blood pressure, urine etc.

"The midwife can update me on the woman’s background, antenatal history and other issues, which helps tremendously when the consultation starts.

“I see women at all stages of their pregnancy and during the clinic we could be discussing everything from how straight forward or complicated their pregnancy is to where they will give birth and any difficulties they are experiencing.

"It’s all done face-to-face so you still feel you are really able to gauge how women are feeling.”

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This way of running the clinic also benefits Dr Blair and means rather that driving or getting the train to Oban once a week, she is only doing this once a fortnight.

“The train for Oban leaves at 4.17am so it makes for a really long day if I travel up that way! It makes much more sense for me to be seeing women in a virtual clinic rather than spending so much time travelling.

"For example after my morning clinic I will be delivering babies via c-section in the afternoon, rather than travelling back down the road. I am sure everyone agrees it’s a much better use of my time.”

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There are also plans to expand the virtual clinics to include women from Mull and Tiree, who still have to travel to Oban either to see Dr Blair in person or to take part in a virtual consultation.

One woman to benefit from the new service is 26-year-old Heather Hannah, a sail maker from Barcaldine near Oban.

Heather said: “My second baby is due on June 7 but this was the first time I had used the virtual clinic. I think it worked really well and it just felt like the doctor was there.

“I had some complications during the birth of my first baby and we were able to discuss the risks around this one.

"The baby is also measuring a bit small so we decided that the safest things all round would be for me to have the baby at Paisley. That way, if I do need any help it’s all there.

“I enjoyed the consultation and being able to see the doctor put me at ease. I would definitely recommend it to friends and it’s so much better than having to travel or have a doctor travel to see me.”

Another patient in Dr Blair’s ‘virtual’ clinic was nurse 30-year-old Linda Brown, who is pregnant with her third baby and travelled over from Mull.

She said: “As a nurse I completely understand that the NHS needs to use its resources wisely so I think this is a great idea.

"It will be even better when it’s rolled out to Mull and other islands. It’s the next logical step.

“The consultant was lovely and we chatted through my options this time around. I had an emergency section with my second baby so we decided that I would have another section this time.

"I feel really re-assured that I will have a date and can start to make plans.”

Jaki Lambert, an acting Head of Midwifery from NHS Highland said: “We are really happy to support this new way of providing care.

"Women told us they wanted to travel less and we have listened to them.”