Remote health consultations are beneficial to users but in some cases cost more than in-person delivery, research has found.
Although it is often assumed digital health services are cheaper to deliver, the University of Hertfordshire study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, found that the need to invest in additional technology, skills and people to deliver online services often made them more costly to run than face-to-face appointments.
For example, it found that two people are often required to set up a remote health consultation – one to lead the appointment, and another to set up the software or provide technical support, or to ensure the service is being delivered safely – whereas a face-to-face appointment would usually only require one.
The study also found that the rise of digital appointments risked widening inequalities due to digital exclusion.
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The two health services studied for the project – a drug and alcohol care service in Leeds and an exercise referral scheme in Wales – did however see health services become more accessible for those who encountered barriers to in-person engagement, for example those with a disability or caring responsibilities.
The drug and alcohol support service reported increased attendance and fewer cancellations.
Despite digital services being beneficial to users, the researchers cautioned against viewing digital delivery as the solution to reducing costs, and said investment was needed to offer a ‘hybrid’ service, involving both in-person and remote delivery.
Katherine Brown, professor of behavioural change in health at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “While in-person treatment can lead to more effective welfare checks and improved rapport, engaging remotely is helpful for those with mobility restrictions, caring responsibilities, or severe social anxiety. For some people, digital services are the only way they can access the health support they need.
“While our research has clearly shown that the digital option isn’t necessarily the cheaper choice for service providers, it also demonstrates the importance of continuing to support this model of delivery and why healthy funding is needed for these services to thrive in a hybrid model.”