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Technology is no ‘magic bullet’ for reducing NHS demand, warns think tank


17 November 2016

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Commissioning digital services for patients and staff should not be seen as a “magic bullet” to reducing demand in the NHS, a think tank has warned.

According to a Nuffield Trust report, digital tools are “one of the brightest hopes” for primary care, but a lack of evidence means its impact is “far from certain”.

CCGs will see a funding increase of 18% to provide general practice with technology for patients and staff, along with £45 million to support the uptake of online consultations.

Commissioning digital services for patients and staff should not be seen as a “magic bullet” to reducing demand in the NHS, a think tank has warned.

According to a Nuffield Trust report, digital tools are “one of the brightest hopes” for primary care, but a lack of evidence means its impact is “far from certain”.

CCGs will see a funding increase of 18% to provide general practice with technology for patients and staff, along with £45 million to support the uptake of online consultations.

The report, The Digital Patient: Transforming Primary Care, examines the impact of digital technology for patients, including online triage programmes such as symptom-checkers, wearable technology like Fitbits, online GP appointment booking, video consultations, and health-related apps.

The authors conclude that technology has already transformed people’s experience of care, in particular helping patients manage chronic conditions such as diabetes or asthma.

While this has the potential to reduce demand on the NHS in the long term, the think tank warns that there are pitfalls when commissioning such technology.

The think tank notes that many of the 165,000 health apps available for download have not been assessed, and of those that have, some have been shown to be inaccurate or ineffective.

But the report says that the lack of evidence around the effectiveness of apps extends to other technologies too, like online triage systems.

The report also highlights the role of NHS staff in encouraging patients to use technology more.

It says: “One of the preconditions of helping patients to become engaged with managing their own conditions is the presence of highly skilled staff to educate and support them: it is not simply a matter of having access to digital tools.”

Furthermore, the authors warn policy-makers and politicians against assuming that this sort of technology, particularly for patients with long-term conditions, will create big savings in the short-term.

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.  Digital tools that help people stay healthy and manage their conditions at home will be critical to the future of the health service. The good news is that this is increasingly becoming a reality in the NHS.

“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”.

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