Digital health technologies could be ‘double-edged sword’ for NHS

Digital technology in primary care is “one of the brightest hopes” for patients and staff, but its impact on the NHS is still unclear, a report has said.

NHS must be aware of uncertainties around digital healthcare – Photo credit: Pixabay

The healthcare research charity the Nuffield Trust has said that the drive to ensure patients can make better use of technologies to interact with primary care services online carried with it risks.

The Digital Patient: transforming primary care? looks at seven types of digital services offered by the NHS in primary care, such as wearables like FitBits, apps, online appointment booking services and access to medical records online.

“Digital tools that help people stay healthy and manage their conditions at home will be critical to the future of the health service,” said report author Sophie Castle-Clarke. “But this technology could be a double edged sword, and there’s still a lot we don’t know.”

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The report said that there was the potential for digital to improve care and reduce strain on the health service, but that decision-makers must carefully weigh the benefits against the risks.

For instance, the report found that some of the 165,000 health apps on the market and some digital health devices may not have been officially evaluated, with others being found to be inaccurate or ineffective.

There is an app evaluation programme being run by NHS Digital and the National Institute for health and Care Excellence that will help GPs prescribe ebidence-based apps in the future, but the trust noted that “these will make up only a fraction of apps on the market”.

Meanwhile, increased use of technology can increase demand for assistance among patients – some might lose interest in wearables or complex log-in processes and return to other forms of contact – and it could also disengage staff.

“Changing ways of working in this way will take time, and require a change in health service culture,” the trust said. “Technology will not act as a ‘magic bullet’ for staff.”

In addition, the trust warns policymakers against assuming that attempting to increase self-care through a greater use of digital technologies would produce significant savings, “at least in the short term”.

Castle-Clarke said: “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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