Investing in telehealthcare could save the NHS £1.2bn BUT I am not going to tell you how!

Last month’s announcement by care services minister Paul Burstow that telehealthcare could save the NHS £1.2bn gave promise to the financially challenged NHS, however it appears to have stirred up a hornets’ nest!

Following a FOI request from publication GP, the Department of Health has blocked attempts to reveal documents detailing how the NHS will save this vast sum. The DH used the same defence as it did with the risk register, claiming that revealing the evidence could ‘inhibit future policy delivery’ and ‘undermine ministers’ and officials’ space for consideration and debate.’

The secrecy around this information does little to provide the NHS with the faith that it needs to consider telehealth as a real alternative to the systems that it currently has in place. Evidence for how telehealth can benefit the NHS is limited and the DH has yet to publish full results from its ‘whole system demonstrator’ (WSD) trial of the technology.

GPs and other experts have therefore backed calls to release the data fearing that telehealth – technology that tracks patients’ health – may not cut hospital admissions and could push more work on to GPs instead.

Despite the continuous pressure for more evidence to be released, ministers signed a ‘concordat’ with industry in January to provide three million patients with telehealth by 2017. This could cost the NHS more than £1bn.

General Practitioner Committee deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said: “While investing in telehealth may superficially sound like a good idea, we’ve yet to see convincing evidence. The risk is that at great expense it gathers a lot of additional data from patients, creates increased workload for GPs, but doesn’t actually reduce admissions.”

Dr Deborah Colvin, City and Hackney Local Medical Committee chairwoman, added: “We need very robust evidence. The costs will be considerable and if we are chasing our tails coping with data that doesn’t benefit the patient it would be madness.”

David Barrett, telehealth lecturer at Hull University, said the £1.2bn figure may be a realistic estimate “if you deploy the right service for the right user in the right way’. But he said this was a ‘very big if’.”

It’s clear that without concrete evidence, provided by the Department of Health, it’s difficult to say how robust this figure might be. However, it’s likely to be based on numbers of consultations or potential hospital savings and some of the small-scale pilots that have been done. Can we really scale up these figures?

Telehealth is a disruptive technology and needs to be deployed on scale with call centre integration as well as combining other community services including a locally based triage centre. It appears that once we begin to realise these transformational changes (and cease to do the things we did before) only then will we realise the savings. What will not be acceptable, and this is supported by the GPs, is if implementation increases their workload for no additional gain.

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