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GP apps and online services ‘no magic bullet’, warns health think-tank



The benefits to GPs from the NHS drive to adopt new technologies are ‘uncertain’ according to a new report from the Nuffield Trust health think-tank, who warn it is no ‘magic bullet’ for staff.

It highlights key pitfalls of NHS England’s digital drive, including the workload implications of educating patients to use technology and the risk of policy makers ‘assuming this will deliver big savings immediately’.

But The Digital Patient: transforming primary care? report does say that these digital tools and apps can be ‘transformative’ for patients, particularly in helping them manage long-term conditions.

It states that ‘the impact of this new digital capability is far from certain; we are lacking evidence in a wide range of areas’ and sets out to explore the current evidence for policymakers to adopt.

The risks of failing to consider this include NHS professionals shunning technology that they think will increase workload or misinform patients, or – as already revealed by Pulse – the growing impact of private GP app providers disrupting primary care.

The report looks at seven key domains where the NHS is expanding the use of technology:

  • Monitoring and wearable technology
  • Online triage
  • Online sources of health information, targeted interventions and peer
  • Support
  • Online appointment booking and other transactional services
  • Remote consultations
  • Online access to records
  • Apps

Many of these fields are already widely adopted and delivering benefits, but to a varying degree, it says.

The report states that maximising these rewards will require training professionals to work differently.

For example, on how to recommend and use data from NHS licensed apps and wearable devices, or to demonstrate how patients can get the most out of online records, for long-term condition management, and online booking.

But the report states: ‘All of this requires resources and it is a mistake to think that the use of patient facing technology to support healthier lifestyles and self-care will be an easy or free option.’

‘It will require funding and support at all levels of the system, at least in the short term. We make a number of recommendations about where this might be most helpful.’

A statement from the Nuffield Trust adds that ‘some of the 165,000 health apps on the market have not been properly assessed yet, and of those that have, some have been shown to be inaccurate or ineffective.’

Though NHS drives to ‘kite mark’ approved apps for GPs to prescribe will help this, ‘the lack of evidence around the effectiveness of apps extends to other technologies too, like online triage systems.’

It also warns that many consumer health apps and wearable devices have a short lifespan before patients lose interest.

Leader author Sophie Castle-Clarke, fellow in health policy at the Nuffield Trust, said: ’Technologies that patients can use offer some of the brightest hopes on the NHS horizon… But this technology could be a double-edged sword, and there’s still a lot we don’t know.

‘Without regulation and a careful look at the evidence – not all of which is compelling – these digital tools could compromise the quality of care and disrupt the way care is provided’.