Facebook your doctor: the future NHS?

In the British Medical Journal this week, researchers from The Netherlands reported the success of a scheme that is being hailed as a trailblazer for
By Dillan Yogendra
07:36 AM

ParkinsonNet is a dedicated website that links Dutch Parkinson’s disease sufferers with doctors and nurses who specialize in that disease area. It behaves like a Facebook for Parkinson’s patients. The professionals communicate and collaborate on the website, a place where patients can locate information about treatment, about the professionals themselves and what they do. If required, they can also request an at-home consultation via video link.

Since it was introduced in 2004, ParkinsonNet has expanded into 66 regional networks and links nearly 3000 professionals from 15 different disciplines to Parkinson’s patients all over The Netherlands.

Evidence presented by the researchers, from the Radboud University Medical Centre, suggests that the website ‘empowers patients, improves the quality of care, shifts care away from institutions and into the community and lowers healthcare costs’. The researchers concluded that the model could be successfully transferred to patients with other long-term conditions such as diabetes and breathing problems.

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Of particular interest to NHS bosses: the Dutch researchers estimated that ParkinsonNet has saved up to €20 million and, although a small amount in the context of the NHS budget which exceeds £100 billion, if this could be translated to the millions of patients suffering from diabetes, heart disease or breathing problems the savings could be enormous.

In an interview with The Independent earlier this week, Dr Martin McShane, NHS England Director for Long-term Conditions, reported that the NHS in England was developing similar models of care for more conditions and said that ParkinsonNet is “a very clear signal of the potential [of telehealth]”. England already has an online psychological therapy service operating in some parts of the country.

“I think this is a really exciting time,” Dr McShane said. “The problem is we’re almost being out-paced by mobile technology. There are also questions about how we ensure the right governance of these schemes – clear quality standards need to be maintained…but do we want to move to a National Health Service rather than a national hospital service? The answer is yes.”

In Scotland, a dedicated Centre for Telehealth and Telecare has already been set up, with ‘patient-centered, at home care’ a key part of the country’s plan to transform the NHS by 2020. Scotland is beginning to move beyond pilot studies to large-scale use of remote consultations with doctors and therapists.

“It’s not about replacing face-to-face care with technology,” said Professor George Crooks, Medical Director of NHS 24, “technology can make face-to-face care more accessible: such as accessing specialist opinion remotely from remote rural or island communities…we will use it but only where it is safe, effective and, most importantly, appropriate to do so…but people use technology to run their day-to-day life and they now expect to be able to use their tablet, smartphone or computer as a way to access their health and care services.”

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