Digital utopia or dystopian distraction?

Some GPs aren’t sure whether new digital technology is going to live up to the hype. Apparently they’re not alone.

UK health think-tank Nuffield Trust recently looked at the evidence for seven types of digital technology for primary care patients to work out whether the world is headed towards “a digital utopia” or “dystopian distraction”.

They examined the research for wearable technology, online triage, online health information, online appointment booking, telehealth, e-records and apps.

They concluded that there’s not enough evidence to show that patient technology actually improves health outcomes. There’s some evidence that some technology boosts patient engagement and their experience. But that’s about it.


For example, regarding telehealth, the trust’s report says: “Remote consultations have variously been found to increase workload, increase workload temporarily and decrease workload”. It’s hardly scientific consensus.

The evidence for online triage is “mixed”, with limited evidence suggesting that it reduces demand by keeping patients away from inappropriate healthcare channels.

Similarly, the evidence for online bookings is “inconclusive”. Some GPs might think online bookings would enable practices to run more efficiently, but the report says there’s “no concrete evidence” for this.


Video: The brave new world of health technology may soon extend to virtual examination.

As for wearable technology, like Fitbits and smart watches, the report says they haven’t been shown to keep patients engaged long-term.

The report is most enthusiastic about three types of technology: patient-controlled e-health records, online sources of information and smartphone apps.

“Online access to medical records and care plans is one of the most effective ways to engage patients,” the authors say. “It can improve patient understanding, confidence, communication, adherence to lifestyle advice and a sense of patient involvement in their own care.”

Online sources of information also receive a cautious tick.

“Professionals should actively recommend online patient networks and trusted sources of information,” they write, adding that online information leads patients to have more productive conversations with their GPs.

The report also backs smartphone apps, despite saying that “the efficacy of the majority of apps is unknown and some are inaccurate”.

The report concludes: “Patients now have a whole suite of new ways to manage their health and healthcare in their pocket, via their smartphone. This has to be a good thing.”

More information:

Nuffield Trust. The Digital Patient.