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3 years, 9 months ago

Was the UK Department of Health (DH) right to axe its telehealth project?

Telehealth
Telehealth is a combination of medical devices and communication technology used to monitor diseases and symptoms, and support health and social care remotely. It represents a solution to the challenges of rising healthcare costs, an aging population, and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases.

The Whole Systems Demonstrator Project
The DH’s Whole Systems Demonstrator (WSD) project was an ill-conceived top-down endeavour doomed to fail. It cost £31m, and was the world’s largest randomised control trial of telehealth involving 7,000 patients, 240 primary care practices across three UK sites.

3millionpeople
In 2011 an interim evaluation concluded that the WSD project could achieve a 45% reduction in mortality rates, a 15% drop in A&E visits, a 14% reduction in bed-days, and an 8% reduction in tariff costs.

These estimates are in line with international findings. Based on a review of some 2,000 studies, GlobalMed concludes that telehealth has reduced hospital re-admissions by 83%, decreased home nursing visits by 66%, and lowered overall costs by more than 30%. Nothing else has worked to reduce such costs.

It was projected that by 2017 three million people in England with long term conditions would be recording their medical data and vital signs remotely, and sending them, via email and text, directly to GPs. This could save the NHS £1.2 billion a year, and significantly enhance the quality of patient care.

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Gordon Moore
Professor, Harvard University Medical School and world renowned authority on the design and implementation of healthcare delivery systems 
 

'Instead of throwing more manpower at their problems, multiple industries are using information technology to offload work to the consumer, connect the participants up in real time, and create smart, real-time process support.'

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Curing the Problems of General Practice

The Royal College of General Practice (RCGP) and the Centre for Workforce Intelligence (CFWI) agree: too small a supply of GPs will meet a rising tide of demand.  In the UK, spotty shortages exist now, but will become widespread over the next decade.

The causes of rising clinical demand are well known:
  • Continued growth of the things medicine can do
  • Surge of lifestyle diseases
  • Burgeoning patient devices that collect data and require monitoring by clinicians
  • Increased public expectations for access to GPs 
  • Aging of the population
  • Emergence of multiple, complex chronic illness
  • Diversion of GPs to management activities such as commissioning

Little analysis of root causes
Less is known about the underlying causes of the shortfall of supply in GPs.   The RCGP cites lagging GP incomes as a source of dissatisfaction, with consequent dampening effects on medical student choices of general practice specialist careers.   The CFWI models GP supply, but offers little analysis of the root causes of the declining intake to GP careers.  

While both the RCGP and the CFWI repeatedly emphasize the need to make general practice more attractive and increase its uptake, they have few suggestions about how to do so other than promoting it better.  In the meantime, they advocate, as does the NHS, that larger, multi-skilled teams must grow to service the increasing need, and that the key barrier to effective teamwork is lack of integration.

Concerns
I want to raise two significant policy concerns about the direction that the UK is taking to mitigate the primary care “crisis”.  First, I postulate that the reason that medical students are not choosing general practice is less a matter of money than of increasing practice complexity and life style.   Second, I suggest that the “solution” of larger, better-integrated teams is unproven and, further, may actually diminish productivity, and worsen, rather than relieve, the stress of work on GPs while their satisfactions further diminish.  

Lifestyle challenges
There is little evidence that medical students will select GP careers if they earned more.  In fact, over the past five years, during the rapid upturn in GP incomes, dissatisfaction among GPs grew and fewer medical students, especially men, chose to enter general practice.  In the US, studies have shown that life style is an important factor in the diminishing number of medical students entering primary care.   At the same time, corporate primary care is growing, and larger practices with more salaried doctors are becoming the work choice of preference. 

This suggests that young doctors are put-off by the complexity, responsibility, the long hours, and the stress of general practice, and seek to transfer those risks to someone else.  Without fixing this, throwing more money at the problem is unlikely to reverse the trend.   Money, of course, is important, but it’s merely an enabler of career choice and a deterrent if too low. Compensation alone doesn't appear to be a sufficient incentive to chose primary care.   

Multi-purpose teams failing
The idea is seductive that integrated, multl-manpower teams are a solution to the GP shortfall. However, early evidence from America doesn’t suggest that the US-version of integrated, primary care teams (the patient-centered medical home) is achieving the efficiencies and improved care that they were touted to deliver.  Recent studies  (see: Friedberg M.W., 26th February 2014, Journal of the American Medical Association) show some small improvements in quality measures, but no change in cost-effectiveness in a group of enthusiastic early adopters.   

There are many reasons to doubt that simple team integration occurs by encouraging it among those working together, and much to suggest that the cost of integration is a major barrier to a cost-effective strategy to increase manpower.   Information technology, as a field, discovered years ago that taking complex tasks and dividing them among many different subgroups was dis-economic.

Additional manpower not the answer
As long ago as 1975, Frederick Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month argued convincingly that by, “adding manpower to a late project makes it later”.  No surprise then that when one counts the cost of personnel, the coordination mismatches, the communication time, the complexity of handoffs, and duplication of services, teamwork is more a theoretical concept than a practical working model. 

Adopt best practice
What, then, might one consider as a possible solution to the increasing stress, complexity, and uncertainty of life as a GP? What is needed to facilitate integration among and between team members and patients?  Surely, we can draw lessons from other industries.  Instead of throwing more manpower at their problems, multiple industries are using information technology to offload work to the consumer (think of Cash Points), connect the participants up in real time, and create smart, real-time process support. 

The role of technology
Digital infrastructure for general practice has failed to keep up with the rest of the world.  The electronic medical record documents what has been done but does little to help doctors and other health workers to do their work. There is no infrastructure to help patients. Information technology should be providing an infrastructure to make general practice easier and better to do. 

Merely throwing non-GP manpower at their problems will make the life of the GP more complicated and less satisfying.   It is time to invest in true infrastructure innovation in the NHS.  It won’t be cheap, but it is the only answer to the threat that general practice will fail to meet the needs of the population in future.    
 
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5 years, 5 months ago

If I’d known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” Memorable words from Eubie Blake, the American jazz composer, lyricist and pianist who died in 1983 at the age of 96. Today, people do take better care of themselves.  Examples of people who do, include rock legends Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, the badboys of the 1960s who became the goodboys of the 1990s. Now, at 70 and 69 respectively, they continue to work, support worthy causes and enjoy a good quality of life.

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Whose age is it anyway?

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