NHS ‘shouldn’t assume that digital technology will lead to significant savings’ – Nuffield Trust

Wearables, smartphone apps and online access to records could be ‘double-edged swords’

The NHS shouldn't assume that digital technologies such as wearables and smartphone apps will lead to significant savings, according to independent health charity Nuffield Trust.

In its report, dubbed The digital patient: transforming primary care?', the charity warned politicians and policy makers to avoid assuming that self-care-enabling technology would produce huge savings, at least in the short term.

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The charity reviewed technologies for primary care use including wearables such as Fitbits, symptom checkers, video consultations, online GP appointment booking, and apps. It did not include medical technologies for use by doctors, such as devices to assist in performing surgery.

The report's author, Sophie Castle-Clarke, says that while these types of technologies are becoming more prevalent within the NHS and are helping many of its patients, the technology could be a "double-edged sword".

"There's still a lot we don't know. 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," she suggested.

The pitfalls of the technology, according to the report, include the fact that some of the 165,000 health apps on the market have not been properly assessed yet, and that there is a lack of evidence around the effectiveness of apps and online triage systems.

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Other issues include difficulty in supporting patients to use the technology, and for NHS staff to change the way their work in order to encourage patients to use technology more.  

Finally, Nuffield Trust said that there is a lack of robust evidence on the impact many technologies will have, and in which contexts specifically on health outcomes.    

But it said that there are many promising areas and a number of technologies that urgently require further research. These include digital tools for self-triage, online access to records and remote consultations.

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