Telehealth interventions, that is, health care provided over a distance using information and communication technology, are suggested as a solution to rising health care costs by reducing hospital service use. However, the extent to which this is possible is unclear.
Small to moderate reductions in hospital service use can be achieved using telehealth. It should be noted that, despite the large number of included studies, uncertainties around the magnitude of effects remain, and not all effects are statistically significant.
The aim of this study is to evaluate the effect of telehealth on the use of hospital services, that is, (duration of) hospitalizations, and to compare the effects between telehealth types and health conditions.
We searched PubMed, Scopus, and the Cochrane Library from inception until April 2019. Peer-reviewed randomized controlled trials (RCTs) reporting the effect of telehealth interventions on hospital service use compared with usual care were included. Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane Risk of Bias 2 tool and quality of evidence according to the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation guidelines.
We included 127 RCTs in the meta-analysis. Of these RCTs, 82.7% (105/127) had a low risk of bias or some concerns overall. High-quality evidence shows that telehealth reduces the risk of all-cause or condition-related hospitalization by 18 (95% CI 0-30) and 37 (95% CI 20-60) per 1000 patients, respectively. We found high-quality evidence that telehealth leads to reductions in the mean all-cause and condition-related hospitalizations, with 50 and 110 fewer hospitalizations per 1000 patients, respectively. Overall, the all-cause hospital days decreased by 1.07 (95% CI -1.76 to -0.39) days per patient. For hospitalized patients, the mean hospital stay for condition-related hospitalizations decreased by 0.89 (95% CI -1.42 to -0.36) days. The effects were similar between telehealth types and health conditions. A trend was observed for studies with longer follow-up periods yielding larger effects.