Five ways telehealth can improve healthcare

A recent study has cast a dark cloud over the effectiveness of telehealth. But despite this study, this isn't the death knell for telehealth. But it may suggest that we need a different approach.

Five ways telehealth can improve healthcare

A recent study has cast a dark cloud over the effectiveness of telehealth. But despite this study, this isn't the death knell for telehealth. But it may suggest that we need a different approach.

In my opinion we need to take an approach that focuses on a more gradual integration of telehealth into the NHS, incremental rather than radical innovation, and better rethinking of clinical pathways. For me, the question is not whether telehealth works, but how we can make it work.

So, why is telehealth such an important issue? Ageing societies, advances in medical science, and the rapid increase in patients with chronic conditions are putting an immense strain on healthcare systems worldwide. To simply tackle these problems with more financial resources is not an option anymore. There is an urgent need to develop services that are more flexible, patient-centred and cost-effective.

The crisis at Mid Staffordshire Hospital taught us many things, and one of those is that a relentless drive towards increased efficiency and aggressive target setting alone is not working, and that alternative methods of improving healthcare outcomes (while decreasing costs) need to be investigated.

Enter telehealth…

Telehealth is the delivery of health-related services and information via telecommunications technologies. In plain English, it is about using technology to monitor a patient's physiological status and health remotely, and to reduce the need for costly human interactions.

Here are just a few of the ways that telehealth is already innovating in people's lives:

  • Better healthcare access: Healthcare is becoming increasingly specialised. For instance, in the NHS in London, specialist centres are now dealing with stroke cases that may once have been dealt with at a smaller local hospital. Growing specialisation can deliver better outcomes, but you need to be able to share limited specialist expertise further afield. Telehealth services can help to leverage specialist expertise, making it possible for an expert to provide support in geographically distant areas.
  • Reduced costs in management of long-term conditions: Improved Management and cost effectiveness of treatment for long-term conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure is the fundamental premise of the telehealth industry. The most recent study has questioned this assumption. However, there were significant weaknesses in this study, and as I said earlier, I believe that telehealth can be beneficial, but that we need more innovation and smarter solutions that focus more on rethinking clinical pathways to provide benefits on a more gradual trajectory.
  • Greater independence for the elderly: M-Health (mobile health) is the current buzzword in the healthcare industry. Examples of M-Health include monitoring tools that identify when a person has fallen over or is experiencing one of a number of pre-defined problems. This 24/7 monitoring allows people to live for longer in their own homes, giving them greater independence as well as reducing costs.
  • Faster diagnosis of certain conditions: Skin conditions are a classic example of this. Instead of travelling to a doctor or specialist it is possible to simply upload a picture of your condition and send it to an online doctor who can diagnose and send out treatment. This service is offered by private organisations already such as ourselves.
  • Consumers want it: There is already huge private demand from patients for self-monitoring tools eg, Fitbit that manage lifestyle factors like diet and activity levels, as well as medical conditions such as blood pressure, weight management and quitting smoking.

Before anybody rushes to conclusions about telehealth, it should be remembered that telehealth is still in its infancy. Further decisions and testing are needed to better understand what technologies to use, as well as which diseases to treat, and which subsets of the population to focus on.

It should also be remembered that the readiness of the population is a barrier. Although some of the current over-65 cohort may struggle with using technology, which inevitably drives up costs, in five to ten years' time, the over-65 generation will be far more tech savvy.

We as a country need to be ready to take advantage of this to improve our healthcare system but also to export our knowledge of this sector around the world.