Digital health tech offers hope but is no ‘magic bullet’ for NHS, says think-tank

Digital technology for patients and NHS staff offers bright hope and is already transforming people’s experience of healthcare, according to a new report from the Nuffield Trust.

The think-tank said that, in particular, digital tools are helping patients manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma, and the technology has the potential to reduce demand on stretched NHS services in the long term. But the authors also warn that there are pitfalls in introducing such technology into the health service and the impact of this new digital capability is far from certain.

“Technologies that patients can use offer some of the brightest hopes on the NHS horizon,” said report author Sophie Castle-Clarke. “Digital tools that help people stay healthy and manage their conditions at home will be critical to the future of the health service. The good news is that this is increasingly becoming a reality in the NHS.”

However, Castle-Clarke also said that digital health technology “could be a double edged sword”.

“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.”

The report points out the some of the 165,000 health apps on the market have not yet been properly assessed, and of those that have, some have been shown to be inaccurate or ineffective.

The app evaluation programme currently in development by organisations including NHS Digital and NICE will enable GPs to prescribe evidence-based apps in the future, but these will represent only a fraction of apps on the market, according to the Nuffield Trust.

Additionally, supporting patients to use the technology can be difficult. Patients can lose interest in consumer devices like apps and wearables, while complex log-in processes to view records or book appointments can be off-putting and some do not trust new technology. What’s more, with 12.6 million people in the UK currently lacking basic digital skills, the NHS must take great care to guard against the ‘digital exclusion’ of some patients.

The authors warned policy-makers and politicians against assuming that digital health technologies will produce big savings, at least in the short term.

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