NHS chiefs face ‘wasted millions’ row over hi-tech telehealth plan

NHS bosses are today accused of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash following serious failings in a trailblazing programme to bring hi-tech telehealth to vulnerable patients in Yorkshire.

Latest figures reveal barely a fifth of 2,000 state-of-the-art telehealth devices are being used in North Yorkshire to monitor vital signs of patients in their homes nearly two years after a £3.2m initiative was launched as a showcase for the technology in the region.

The programme is the biggest telehealth project ordered by a single organisation in England but an internal audit report by North Yorkshire and York Primary Care Trust (PCT), seen by the Yorkshire Post, has failed to find any evidence to justify its scale.

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Health chiefs decided to press ahead rapidly with the programme in March 2010 before a pilot project had even been evaluated after being warned they would lose multi-million-pound funding, including £1m in cash from the regional health authority, if they did not spend it by the end of the month.

The report suggests they decided to buy 2,000 devices because it was the most they could afford, signing a deal with Selby-based firm Tunstall.

Officials had hoped the technology would save the NHS £3.4m by last March by significantly cutting hospital admissions but the report found by June less than £200,000 had been saved.

The audit said a team of five PCT directors who approved the deal gave verbal assurances they had no conflicts of interest but they made no signed declarations and “consequently transparency and an adequate audit trail for this part of the process were not in place”.

It concludes the project funding and procurement process was completed in line with rules in place at the time but sets out a major overhaul of procedures including requiring full business assessments for major projects.

It found further problems over the initiative’s direction six months after the deal was signed when David Cockayne, one of the directors who agreed the deal and also led the project, left to work for Tunstall.

Telehealth was hailed last month by Prime Minister David Cameron as vital to NHS efforts to save money and improve the care of three million people in England with long-term illnesses including heart disease and respiratory problems. Health chiefs in other parts of Yorkshire are drawing up plans for its wider use but the project in North Yorkshire has been hampered by a reluctance of GPs to get involved, prompting managers to offer payments to doctors to take part.

Latest figures reveal only 410 telehealth units being used, while only 659 patients have been referred since the project began.

Coun Jim Clark, chairman of North Yorkshire County Council’s health scrutiny committee, said: “Telehealth is the way forward for a large rural county like North Yorkshire but it’s disappointing a proper procurement process did not take place and it is a waste of money to have these devices sitting doing nothing. I hope the fact this has gone badly wrong shouldn’t affect the prospects of using it in future.”

Scarborough and Whitby MP Robert Goodwill said the project had been “very badly managed” by the PCT. He added: “It’s symptomatic of the way money was sloshing around the health service and how things like this can go wrong with these bureaucratic structures in place. Surely the way to have promoted this was through GPs taking it on rather than the PCT saying ‘We’ve got this, you had better use it’.”

Kerry Wheeler, PCT assistant director of strategy, said the decision to purchase 2,000 units took into consideration the 50,000 people living in North Yorkshire with long-term conditions.

A full business case had not been required as the total value of the project to the PCT was less than £3m. The internal audit report had concluded that both the approval and procurement processes for the purchase met standing financial instructions and orders.

A Tunstall spokesman said the project “trailblazed the mainstream of adoption of telehealth in the NHS” and “could in no way be described as unsuccessful”. Hundreds of patients in the county had benefited from better care and improved quality of life.

• More in Saturday’s Yorkshire Post