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GPs urge ministers to rethink telehealth drive as low takeup in pilot area revealed

One of the country's biggest telehealth projects is so underutilised that PCT managers have been forced to offer GPs cash incentives to refer to the scheme.

GP leaders warned that low engagement among practices could prove a major stumbling block to the Government's telehealth drive, as ministers launched a campaign claiming the initiative could transform the lives of three million patients.

NHS North Yorkshire and York bought 2,000 telehealth units from manufacturers Tunstall in early 2010, following a successful pilot scheme in 2009. A total of 1,500 units were projected to be in use by last April.

But PCT board minutes reveal that by last June only 350 of the 2,000 units had been used, with minimal takeup among GPs. Just seven practices had referred patients for 34 telehealth units, with the remainder used by community and secondary care.

A PCT spokesperson told Pulse that the number of units in use had risen to 659 by December, but  admitted the trust faced ‘challenges with getting some GPs engaged', and said it was now offering cash incentives for practices to take part.

GPs will receive a one-off payment of £200 for signing up to the telehealth deployment, plus £50 per patient for installation, with a further £50 per patient for those requiring telehealth for six months or longer.

But Dr John Crompton, chair of North Yorkshire LMC, said: ‘We´ve always had concerns that there wasn´t enough evidence base for the purchase of such a large number of units.'

‘There are questions over whether this is the most appropriate use of scarce funds.

The low takeup in the largest telehealth scheme outside the Whole Systems Demonstrator programme, the main national pilot, comes as ministers pledged to bring telecare to three million patients within five years (see box).

But Dr Paul Cundy, chair of the GPC´s IT subcommittee, predicted that poor take-up by practices could force the Department of Health to ‘rethink the whole thing'.

‘Your average GP needs substantial convincing that there is any benefit to telehealth and this is a very good argument for putting GPs in charge of commissioning,' he said.

Writing in the BMJ this week Dr Margaret McCartney, a GP in Glasgow, questioned the evidence-base of the project, and pressed the Government to publish full trial data from the whole systems demonstrator programme.

‘Without evidence this becomes a public relations stunt, not a cost effective practice,' she said.


The ‘three million lives' campaign

Health minister Paul Burstow this week announced a concordat between the Government and the telecare industry and announced a national telehealth drive to transform the lives of three million patients with long-term conditions within five years.

The rollout follows results from the two-year Whole System Demonstrator programme, which studied the impact of telehealth on 6,191 patients across 238 practices and found a 45% reduction in mortality and a 20% fall in emergency admissions.

However the DH has yet to publish the full trial data behind the headline findings.