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Two-fifths of patients report use of tech during Covid led to worse care quality


By Jess Hacker
16 March 2021

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Just over two-fifths (42%) of patients who used technology to access health services during Covid said it led to worse care quality compared to traditional methods, according to a survey.

The Health Foundation surveyed 4,326 adults who used the NHS during the first weeks of the pandemic, and 1,413 NHS staff, to assess how use of technology had changed.

In a report published today (16 March), it said that most respondents (83%) viewed their experience of using technology to access services during the pandemic positively.

However, when respondents were asked to compare these approaches to more traditional models of care, 42% of NHS users said they led to a drop in care quality.

Meanwhile, a third (33%) of 1,158 NHS staff respondents also linked their organisation’s increased use of technology with a worsening of the quality of care.

The Health Foundation said the findings ‘highlighted the need for technology implemented during the pandemic to be developed and improved before the Government goes ahead with its ambition of ‘locking in’ new innovations’.

Few patients ‘negative’ over future technology

The survey also found that slightly higher numbers of negative experiences with technology were reported by those aged 55 and older, people with a carer, and unemployed people.

Half of respondents aged 55 and older, and nearly half of those with a carer – groups that  the Health Foundation said may have a higher need for healthcare – thought technology-enabled approaches were worse compared with traditional ones, the report said.

It added that it will be ‘necessary to investigate what worked well, what did not and why, including from the standpoint of equity and digital inclusion’.

The survey also found that across all respondents, phone consultations with a doctor or nurse had been the most common use of technology, with 73% having accessed care in this way, compared to just 8% via video consultation.

The Health Foundation noted that many of the technology-based changes implemented were not done to improve services ‘but to maintain them during a public health emergency’.

The report said: ‘Making technology-enabled approaches serve longer term quality ambitions may require further development.’

For example, services that have implemented virtual consultations could set ‘maintaining quality while realising the benefits of remote care’ as ‘a legitimate objective’ in the long term, it added.

Patient input after Covid

The report called for health services to revaluate how these technologies have been implemented as the UK exits ‘the emergency phase’ of the pandemic.

It said that the pace at which these new methods of providing or accessing care were introduced meant that changes had often ‘happened without much engagement with patients’.

It also suggested that the fast-paced conditions during the pandemic may have resulted in taking a ‘good enough’ approach to implementing these services.

In particular, the authors noted that although virtual consultations have helped services maintain social distancing and manage high demand, they were originally intended to improve workload management.

‘In future we will want these technologies to serve the broader quality and productivity objectives for which they were originally conceived, as well as new objectives as they emerge,’ they said.

‘Secure a positive technology legacy’

Tim Horton, the Health Foundation’s assistant director of improvement, said: ‘The NHS has not yet ‘sealed the deal’ with the public on the future use of technology and further work is needed to address concerns and build trust in new technologies.

‘While the speed of innovation has been hugely impressive, rushing to make these changes permanent without understanding more about their impact would risk holding back promising technologies from fulfilling their potential to improve care for every patient.’

He added: ‘Action is needed by the NHS and government, who have a critical opportunity to secure a positive health care technology legacy from Covid-19.’

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