Digital health has the potential to revolutionize health care by improving accessibility, patient experience, outcomes, productivity, safety, and cost efficiency. In England, the NHS (National Health Service) Long Term Plan promised the right to access digital-first primary care by March 31, 2024. However, there are few global, fully digital-first providers and limited research into their effects on cost from a health system perspective.
The aim of this study was to evaluate the impact of highly accessible, digital-first primary care on acute hospital spending.
A retrospective, observational analysis compared acute hospital spending on patients registered to a 24/7, digital-first model of NHS primary care with that on patients registered to all other practices in North West London Collaboration of Clinical Commissioning Groups. Acute hospital spending data per practice were obtained under a freedom of information request. Three versions of NHS techniques designed to fairly allocate funding according to need were used to standardize or “weight” the practice populations; hence, there are 3 results for each year. The weighting adjusted the populations for characteristics that impact health care spending, such as age, sex, and deprivation. The total spending was divided by the number of standardized or weighted patients to give the spending per weighted patient, which was used to compare the 2 groups in the NHS financial years (FY) 2018-2019 (FY18/19) and 2019-2020 (FY19/20). FY18/19 costs were adjusted for inflation, so they were comparable with the values of FY19/20.
The NHS spending on acute hospital care for 2.43 million and 2.54 million people (FY18/19 and FY19/20) across 358 practices and 49 primary care networks was £1.6 billion and £1.65 billion (a currency exchange rate of £1=US $1.38 is applicable), respectively. The spending on acute care per weighted patient for Babylon GP at Hand members was 12%, 31%, and 54% (£93, P=.047; £223, P<.001; and £389, P<.001) lower than the regional average in FY18/19 for the 3 weighting methodologies used. In FY19/20, it was 15%, 35%, and 51% (£114, P=.006; £246, P<.001; and £362, P<.001) lower. This amounted to lower costs for the Babylon GP at Hand population of £1.37, £4.40 million, and £11.6 million, respectively, in FY18/19; and £3.26 million, £9.54 million, and £18.8 million, respectively, in FY19/20.
Patients with access to 24/7, digital-first primary care incurred significantly lower acute hospital costs.