3 million could benefit from ‘doctor by broadband’

Some three million patients could be consulting their doctors and managing their health conditions online by 2017, saving the NHS £1.2 billion, Paul Burstow, the Care Services Minister, has claimed.

Although few have heard of ‘telehealth’ and ‘telecare’, ministers are keen to increase use of these technologies, allow people with long term conditions like heart disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) to manage their illness largely from home.

‘Telehealth’ systems enable patients to submit vital signs like blood pressure and glucose levels, and view treatment plans, to be interpreted remotely by doctors, meaning individuals do not have to constantly attend hospital appointments.

‘Telecare’ equipment enable vulnerable people to live at home longer, for example personal pendant alarms they can activate if in trouble.

In December the Prime Minister said he wanted such technology rolled out on an “industrial scale”, after a Department of Health study of 6,000 patients showed it cut accident and emergency visits by 15 per cent, emergency admissions by 20 per cent, and mortality rates by 45 per cent.

Yesterday Mr Burstow described those findings as “staggering”.

He said: “By keeping people out of hospital, by reducing the time they’re there when they have to be and by being far more targeted and efficient with the use of NHS resources, we estimate the widespread use of telecare and telehealth could save the NHS up to £1.2 billion over five years.”

The projected saving is based on extrapolating the trial’s results to cover the three million people that officials believe could benefit.

Speaking at a conference on the subject at The King’s Fund, a think-tank, he noted that seven in 10 hospital beds were filled by people with long-term conditions. About 15 million people currently have such a condition, a number that is rising fast as the population ages.

Ministers have decided against setting targets for implementation, which Mr Burstow claimed would lead to bulk-buying and costly equipment “gathering dust”. Instead, the focus is to be on helping “local providers” get the equipment they think they need.

Mr Burstow conceded there were “some substantial initial costs”. Hospitals, local health authorities and GPs’ groups might well think twice about buying into such technology, in such hard times.

There are also fears the drive could marginalise elderly people – either because they do not want to use it; or because they do, but end up losing out on face-to-face contact with medical staff.