In December 2011, prime minister David Cameron extolled the merits of telehealth, asserting: 'We've trialled it, it's been a huge success and now we're on a drive to roll this nationwide'.
A year later, health secretary Jeremy Hunt 'kickstarted' the roll-out, confirming the launch of seven telehealth pathfinders in a bid to 'improve the lives of people with long-term conditions', while making England the 'leading centre for telehealth outside the US'. The government's overall ambition is for three million people to benefit from telehealth by 2017.
Fast forward to February 2013 and the latest findings of the DH's whole system demonstrator evaluation of telehealth and telecare are published by bmj.com showing that telehealth is 'not effective' in improving the quality of life of people with long-term conditions.
The research, conducted over 12 months among 1500 patients with lung disease, diabetes or heart failure in Cornwall, Kent and London, found telehealth use had no impact on generic quality of life, anxiety or depressive symptoms. The authors concluded: 'Our findings strongly suggest no net benefit from telehealth, it should not be used as a tool to improve health-related quality of life or psychological outcomes.'
How often is it stressed that NHS funding is finite, that efficiency savings must be made and priorities agreed? Why, then, do ministers not wait for detailed evaluation of research before rolling out initiatives?
While the telehealth study team's work did not assess potential benefits specific to individual long-term conditions, the fact that there was no improvement in users' quality of life is a significant blow. There is a place for telehealth, particularly in remote areas of the UK but, ultimately, patients prefer face-to-face contact with real, live health professionals and this is where the lion's share of NHS investment must go.
Sarah Wild, editor, Independent Nurse