LONDON - Monitoring patients at home using modern technology, so-called "telehealth," is tipped as the next big thing in healthcare, but a new study by British researchers suggests it may not be worth the extra expense.
The findings will fuel controversy over the economic case for telehealth, which many information technology and telecoms companies are betting on as a multibillion-dollar market opportunity.
Martin Knapp, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, one of the leaders of the study, said the disappointing results did not mean telehealth was a waste of time but did suggest it needed to be better targeted.
In some cases, smarter technology and a scaling up of programmes might help improve the outcome, he added.
"We have got to find ways of better adjusting the equipment to suit the circumstances of the individual patient," he said in an interview. "Just at the moment we don't find the advantage that people had hoped for."
Knapp and colleagues tested the cost-effectiveness of telehealth compared with standard care over 12 months in 965 patients with three long-term conditions: heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or diabetes.
Just over half the patients received equipment to allow them to measure things like blood pressure and blood glucose levels at home. They then transmitted their readings electronically to a healthcare professional.
The pay-off, however, was marginal. The researchers found that the cost per quality adjusted life year (QALY) - a standard measure of quantity and quality of life - of telehealth when added to usual care was 92,000 pounds ($139,200).
That is well above the 30,000 pounds that Britain's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) uses as a benchmark for assessing if medical interventions are worth using on the state-run health service.
"Telehealth does not seem to be a cost effective addition to standard support and treatment," the study authors concluded in their report in the British Medical Journal on Friday.