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Telemedicine could ‘reduce mortality by 45%’

Deaths can be almost halved among patients with long-term conditions by the NHS using telehealth devices that track a patient’s vital signs from home, according to the results of a Department of Health pilot study.

The Whole System Demonstrator Programme, carried out by the Department of Health place between May 2008 and September 2010, observed 6,191 patients and 238 GP practices, each for a minimum of a year, across Cornwall, Kent and Newham and was the ‘largest randomised control trial’ of telehealth and telecare ever.

The study found that if telehealth was properly implemented it could reduce death rates in patients with long term conditions by 45%. The study also recorded a 15% reduction in A&E visits, a 20% reduction in emergency admissions, a 14% reduction in bed days and an 8% reduction in tariff costsfor patients with long-term conditions such as diabetes, heart failure, COPD, arthritis and depression.

According to the report, there are over three million people in the UK could benefit from telehealth or telecare. The Government said it would ‘accelerate the use of assistive technologies in the NHS’, aiming to improve the lives of these patients over the next five years.

The Department of Health is working with industry, the NHS, social care and professional partners, but the ‘Three Million Lives’ campaign is still in its early stages and no plan for a national roll-out yet exists.

Telehealth comprises electronic sensors that monitor a patient’s vital signs in their own home. The readings are then beamed back to medical staff who can monitor the data and make decisions about potential interventions ‘in real time’, without the patient having to go to a clinic.

The Department of Health said: ‘We know that people, particularly those with more long term conditions, don’t want to spend time in hospital unnecessarily, they want to have more control over decisions made about their care and they want to live a normal life’.

‘We want to make sure that people have access to services and information that help them make their own decisions and one way of doing this would be to enable people to get real time data on their own health status in real time. That is what assistive technology such as telehealth and telecare can do.’

Dr Richard Berkley, a GP in Bristol who has used telehealth in his practice, said: ‘I am very pleased with the result, I have been working on this for five years and think it will be a very important addition to the way we manage long term conditions. The cost is always an issue, but it does seem that it pays for itself in the results that it is producing and I have experience of this personally in my practice.’

Dr Daryl Freeman, a GP in Sankence, Norfolk, said: ‘I am surprised by the figure of 45% – my experience of telehealth has been variable. I have found it very useful in monitoring heart failure however, as we can watch weight changes on a day to day basis which helps us pick up worsening HF early’.