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Telemedicine ‘unlikely to be cost-effective’, admit researchers leading DH pilot

The Government's telemedicine drive is likely to push up costs and has less than a 40% chance of being cost-effective, researchers leading a flagship Department of Health pilot study have admitted.

Revealing unpublished cost-effectiveness data from the Whole Systems Demonstrator Project today, researchers said it had had little effect on quality of life and had shown a cost per QALY of £88,000.

The pilot study has been touted by ministers as the future of the NHS, with care services minister Paul Burstow yesterday telling the King's Fund international conference on telehealth and telecare that telehealth could save the NHS up to £1.2bn over five years.

Data from the Whole Systems Demonstrator Project released earlier this year showed a 45% reduction in mortality and a 20% fall in emergency admissions in patients with access to telemedicine– but researchers admitted today that there was little effect on quality of life and rolling out the project was likely to push up costs.

Professor Stan Newman, principal investigator on the Whole Systems Demonstrator Project, said telemedicine was able to vastly improve care, but warned it came with a hefty price tag.

He said: ‘The net effects of improving care and reducing mortality may be to increase costs. If you want to save lives, it costs money, and that is a real tension.'

He cited US evidence that showed higher intervention costs associated with introducing telemedicine at scale and other studies covering heart failure, where improved care had resulted in patients living longer and costing the health service more.

Presenting cost-effectiveness data from the pilot, Catherine Hendersen, a research officer at the London School of Economics, said analysis after 12-months showed costs were ‘very high' for the quality of life benefit seen, with a cost per QALY of £88,000.

She said: ‘It is unlikely that telehealth is cost-effective in terms of improving quality of life, in relation to a NICE threshold of £30,000.'

Even when researchers factored in a reduction in the cost equipment of 80% or scaling up the programme to ‘full utilisation' there was only a 40% chance it would be cost effective at a threshold of £30,000.

Also speaking at the conference, Stephen Johnson, head of long-term conditions at the Department of Health, said officials had to work on ‘price points' but were committed to extending telemedicine across the NHS.

Pulse revealed earlier this year that one of the country's biggest telehealth projects in Yorkshire was so underutilised that PCT managers had been forced to offer GPs cash incentives to refer to the scheme.