Are ‘three million lives’ really ready for telehealth?

Last week, the Department of Health finally announced the headline findings of the Whole System Demonstrator project, a wide scale telehealth pilot that has been taking place over the past three years in England.

For many, the initial findings gave the NHS and industry what they had been waiting for, an evidence base which says that telehealth gives greater power to patients and reduces costs through early intervention.

The results say the correct use of telehealth can deliver; a 15% reduction in A&E visits, a 20% reduction in emergency admissions, a 14% reduction in elective admissions, a 14% reduction in bed days and an 8% reduction in tariff costs.

These top-level findings at first glance appear fantastic but are they really enough for the government to commit to deploying three million more telehealth systems into homes over the next five years as also announced last week?

My initial response is no. While I have great faith in telehealth and yet great frustration at the rate it is being deployed these findings for me are still not enough to give the go ahead on a national roll-out.

For me the words ‘correct use of telehealth’ rings alarm bells. What is the ‘correct’ use and how can we ensure it is carried out? Moreover, is it even feasible that within five years, three million people will enroll on the scheme, given that during the early stage of the WSD pilot only one in ten of those who were asked actually signed up.

The concept of widespread telehealth is a great one but these findings alone along with the government’s promise to only invest in proven technology is simply not enough.

While a fuller report may do this, the report currently released to the public merely provides an overview of the benefits and lacks the real, hard data that commissioners need to decide whether telehealth could work in their area and how.

In addition to this it appears that there is far more to be done to find out what does and does not work in health outcome terms, how will hospitals be paid, who are the best patients to enrol and also how GPs will be engaged with data sharing among all the other challenges and responsibilities they are about to take onboard due to the reforms.

Therefore, while I’m all for the spreading of innovation, the conclusions so far drawn from this report appear only to serve as a basis for where more work could be done and more data could be revealed rather than a foundation for a national roll-out.

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