Huge roadblocks to telehealth remain

What are the road blocks to the adoption of telehealth? A good place to get answers was the King’s Fund International Digital Health and Care Congress in London last week. Effective telehealth – the remote exchange of data between patients and healthcare professionals to assist in the diagnosis and management of healthcare conditions – is vital given that long term medical conditions take up 70 per cent of the NHS UK budget. Fans claim it reduces A&E admissions, costs and bed days.

The conference was brimming with telehealth champions and evangelists but there are significant barriers to the adoption of telehealth. What we really need to be looking at is how to integrate telehealth into the care pathway and how to get family doctors (GPs) onside.

Family doctors historically have rejected telehealth as they are either unwilling to relinquish control of their patients, they resist the change to tradition or they don’t have time in their schedules to come to terms with the technology.

It was often stressed at the conference that telehealth isn’t for every patient and according to experts, 60-70 per cent of patients are sceptical about managing their conditions themselves. Not to mention the current UK system is not organisationally, operationally or financially prepared for a telehealth revolution.

Technical difficulties and socio-technical barriers also stand in the way of its adoption. Questions over the security of the tech and the protection of patient data continue to dog service providers and significantly limit the use of free services such as Skype in the patient journey.

Calls for a cultural shift that will see technology integrated in to the patient’s journey were common at the King’s Fund Congress, but few solutions were offered about how exactly to enact this change. Finding an appropriate way to overhaul healthcare systems and the thinking of GPs – not just in the UK but also across Europe – has left experts scratching their heads and so far, no European country has been successful in doing this.

There is huge room for the private sector to invest in the technology and service provision side of telehealth, especially in the UK. Italian medtech group and telehealth operator TBS estimates that the UK takes up a 40 per cent share of the European telehealth market. Scotland, in particular, is at the forefront of telehalth innovations – what will happen to the market if Scotland becomes independent this week is yet another telehelath question that no one has an answer for.

So what’s next?

People know what is stopping the wide-spread integration of telehealth but they don’t have any solutions.

The focus needs to move away from the technology and be put on the integration of telehealth into the care pathway. Fantastic innovative solutions are prevented from spreading across the UK and Europe by incredibly tough international regulations. There’s no doubt that technology has firm place in the future of healthcare – but it seems no one knows how to make the leap that will take us there.

We would welcome your thoughts on this story. Email your views to Max Hotopf or call 0207 183 3779.