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Telehealth is (mostly) harmless

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Telehealth is one of the new buzz words from the Department of Health (DH).  At an Age UK conference last year Jeremy Hunt announced telehealth services will benefit 100,000 people in 2013 – quite how that number was calculated I have no idea.  Possibly plucked out of thin air?

Telehealth isn't new, it's been around since a doctor first carried out a telephone consultation with a patient, because the definition is simply the use of telecommunication technologies to provide health care services.

Since that first telephone consultation much has changed and the breadth of information communicated has increased.  We can now have blood pressure, pulse rates, blood glucose and oxygen saturation readings from devices patients have at home. New telehealth technology can add the data to the patient record automatically.

The DH plans to introduce a DES and pay practices to offer telehealth services using money clawed back from QOF under the assumption telehealth will reduce healthcare costs while improving health related quality of life for those patients.

But how sound is the evidence telehealth will actually benefit patients? The answer is ‘not very’ according to research published from the Whole-Systems Demonstrator trial in February which suggests over a 12-month period telehealth was of little benefit to patients with COPD, diabetes or heart failure compared to patients receiving usual care from their GP and other primary and secondary care support services.

So if the evidence isn't stacking up why is the DH so intent on introducing a DES that will actually increase workload in primary care and may not benefit patients?

According to a recent article in Pulse telehealth consultations will be an `everyday reality’ within 10 years.

Tell me though, how is a DES payment for a patient having an expensive machine at home that sends information directly into the patient record different from the same patient verbally giving me identical information over the phone and me entering it manually? I'll tell you.  Only one way pays.

Dr Hadrian Moss is a GP in Kettering, Northamptonshire. You can tweet him at @DrHMoss.

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