BMJ study casts doubt on telehealth's cost benefits

U.K. researchers have concluded that telehealth may not be a cost-effective option compared with standard support and treatment for patients with long-term medical conditions, according to a study published online on 21 March by BMJ.

Telehealth is intended to help people with health issues to live at home and be monitored electronically for vital signs, such as blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and other events to reduce their need for hospital visits.

Of the 965 patients who participated in this study, 534 people received telehealth equipment and support, while 431 individuals received usual care.

The cost per quality adjusted life year (QALY, which measures quantity and quality of life) of telehealth was 92,000 pounds (about 108,000 euros) when combined with usual care. That amount is well above the cost-effectiveness threshold of 30,000 pounds (about 35,250 euros) set by the U.K. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). The probability of cost-effectiveness was low (11%).

Even when the effects of equipment price reductions and increased working capacity of services were combined, the probability that telehealth's cost-effectiveness was only about 61%, at a threshold of 30,000 pounds per QALY.

Researchers noted the QALY gain by people using telehealth in addition to standard support and treatment was similar to those receiving usual care, and total costs for the telehealth group were higher.

Based on the numbers, they concluded telehealth does not seem to be a cost-effective addition to standard support and treatment.

The study is part of the Whole Systems Demonstrator Trial, which is exploring the costs and benefits of telehealth and telecare.

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