Exclusive: GPs demand telecare savings evidence

Investing millions in telehealth could add to GP workload without benefiting patients, the GPC has warned, after the DH refused to explain its claim that the technology would save the NHS £1.2bn.

Dr Colvin: it would be mad to chase data that doesn’t benefit patients (Photograph: JH Lancy)

Care services minister Paul Burstow announced the figure last month but the DH has blocked attempts to reveal documents detailing how the NHS will save this vast sum.

GP asked for the evidence behind the £1.2bn claim under Freedom of Information rules. The DH refused, using the same defence it used to withhold the NHS risk register.

It said revealing the evidence could ‘inhibit future policy delivery’ and ‘undermine ministers’ and officials’ space for consideration and debate’.

GPs and other experts have backed calls to release the data. GP leaders fear telehealth – technology that tracks patients’ health – may not cut hospital admissions and could push more work on to GPs instead.

Evidence for how telehealth can benefit the NHS is limited and the DH has yet to publish full results from its ‘whole system demonstrator’ (WSD) trial of the technology.

'Concordat' with industry
Despite this, ministers signed a ‘concordat’ with industry in January to provide three million patients with telehealth by 2017. This could cost the NHS more than £1bn.

GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘While investing in telehealth may sup­erficially sound like a good idea, we’ve yet to see convin­cing evidence. The risk is that at great expense it gathers a lot of add­itional data from patients, creates increased workload for GPs, but doesn’t actually reduce admissions.’

Dr Deborah Colvin, City and Hackney LMC chairwoman, said: ‘We need very robust evidence. The costs will be considerable and if we are chasing our tails coping with data that doesn’t benefit the patient it would be madness.’

David Barrett, telehealth lecturer at Hull University, said the £1.2bn figure may be a realistic estimate ‘if you deploy the right service for the right user in the right way’. But he said this was a ‘very big "if"’.

Dr Jon Ford, head of health policy and economic research at the BMA, said: ‘It's difficult to say how robust this figure might be. I presume it is based on numbers of consultations or potential hospital savings, based in turn on some of the small scale pilots that have been done.'

Although these pilots had 'impressive' results, he added, it is debatable whether you can simply gross up the figures from small studies.

A DH spokeswoman said headline WSD data show that ‘telehealth can reduce emergency admissions by 20%, A&E attendance by 15% and mortality rates by 45%’.   

Trevor Single, chief executive of the Telecare Services Ass­ociation, said full WSD results were due soon, and the data would help address concerns.

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