NHS Tech Could Be ‘Double-Edged Sword’

The NHS should not expect short-term savings from self-care and online patient technologies, finds The Nuffield Trust

The NHS has been warned not to expect immediate savings from patient-facing digital technologies, and urged the cautious adoption of such tools, arguing they may prove a “double-edged sword”.

While health technologies used by patients, such as online tools and wearable devices, offer “hopes”, they risk creating disruption and compromising care quality if they’re brought in without careful evaluation, said the The digital patient: transforming primary care study conducted by independent health think tank The Nuffield Trust.

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More support needed

“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” stated Sophie Castle-Clarke, fellow in health policy at The Nuffield Trust and lead author of the report. “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.”

The study examined tools used by patients in primary care, including interactive symptom checkers, FitBits, online GP appointment booking and the 165,000 health apps currently available.

It found online triage systems could in some cases result in unnecessary demand on frontline systems, advising the way they interact with patients undergo further testing and refinement.

The study also found that while self-care tools could be helpful, in many cases they required ongoing professional support.

“Services to support patient engagement and effective self-care, such as better use of health coaches and others, are likely to improve effective uptake in the long term, particularly in those with specific health needs,” the report said.

Staff investment

Online tools such as patient record access, online appointment booking and remote consultations also show promise, but in the short term they require an investment in staff to help patients understand how such services can benefit them.

The effective adoption of such interactions require a “change in health service culture” that can only take place gradually, the think tank said.

“Changing ways of working in this way will take time, and require a change in health service culture – the authors warn that the technology will not act as a ‘magic bullet’ for staff,” the group said in a statement.

The NHS has said it hopes at least 10 percent of patients will be using an online service by 2016-17, rising to 20 percent the following year, and is investing £45 million to support the uptake of online consultations.

In September health secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced new funding to develop advanced digital practices at 12 exemplar NHS trusts as part of a wider plan to improve digital skills and technologies across the healthcare service.

The plan came in response to a review that found a target of making the NHS paperless by 2020 was “unrealistic” and instead recommended a phased approach that would initially focus on honing the digital practices of select trusts that are already well-positioned to implement new technologies.

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