29th October 2014
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Lessons from an axed telehealth project

Was the UK Department of Health (DH) right to axe its telehealth project?

Telehealth is a combination of medical devices and communication technology used to monitor diseases and symptoms, and support health and social care remotely. It represents a solution to the challenges of rising healthcare costs, an aging population, and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases.

The Whole Systems Demonstrator Project
The DH’s Whole Systems Demonstrator (WSD) project was an ill-conceived top-down endeavour doomed to fail. It cost £31m, and was the world’s largest randomised control trial of telehealth involving 7,000 patients, 240 primary care practices across three UK sites.
In 2011 an interim evaluation concluded that the WSD project could achieve a 45% reduction in mortality rates, a 15% drop in A&E visits, a 14% reduction in bed-days, and an 8% reduction in tariff costs.

These estimates are in line with international findings. Based on a review of some 2,000 studies, GlobalMed concludes that telehealth has reduced hospital re-admissions by 83%, decreased home nursing visits by 66%, and lowered overall costs by more than 30%. Nothing else has worked to reduce such costs.
It was projected that by 2017 three million people in England with long term conditions would be recording their medical data and vital signs remotely, and sending them, via email and text, directly to GPs. This could save the NHS £1.2 billion a year, and significantly enhance the quality of patient care.
GP’s wrath should have been expected
Despite its projected success, the DH’s telehealth project was quietly axed, following a London School of Economics (LSE) study, which concluded that the project, "does not seem to be a cost-effective addition to standard support and treatment", and GPs complaining of a “tsunami” of data.
Too much importance was given to the LSE study, and not enough to GPs. The DH failed to understand how to change a large healthcare system. As a consequence the UK telehealth project was a bolt on to a poorly integrated care system not adapted to telehealth, and was sure to incur the wrath of GPs.

Despite endeavours to train more GPs and expand community nurses, there is abundant evidence to suggest that GPs struggle under large and growing workloads, and reports of stress and burnout are common. Not a group you would impose change upon from the top. See, ‘Curing the problems of general practice’ (click on image below).
A human system which uses technology
The DH wrongly viewed telehealth as a technology system, and healthcare as a machine with processes and activities that delivers services to patients. Telehealth is a human system, which uses technology.

Health professionals, patients and their carers are the essential tools of telehealth. As they become more experienced in collecting, analysing and acting upon the information they receive from telehealth devices, so they become more integrated, and patients benefit and cost effectiveness increases.

Lessons for the DH
  1. Healthcare is an organic system comprised of people operating in a context
  2. Change is non-linear
  3.  GPs are not commodities on which to impose change from the top, but sources of power, which can bring about change
  4. Seeds of change should have been planted with GPs who perceive change as an opportunity for personal development and growth.  
The DH was right to axe its badly conceived telehealth project, but would be wrong to withdraw its support for telehealth.  
Marc Pacifico
Consultant Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead and Purity Bridge Clinic, Tunbridge Wells. 
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