UK Trade and Investment

Another piece of the jigsaw: The UK’s growing telehealth sector

The UK is at the forefront of delivering innovative healthcare and support services to an ever increasing population.

Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that the number of people in the UK aged 65-plus will rise from 9.3 million to 16.8 million.To cope with an aged population, new ways must be found to deliver care and support services so older people can live independent lives with dignity.

New advanced assistive technologies such as telehealth will play a vital role in the future of healthcare – not just in Britain, but around the world.

Delivering healthcare remotely
Telehealth is the ability to deliver a healthcare service to remote areas, using digital telecommunications technology such as video conferencing equipment (and is a component of ‘telecare’ which uses these technologies to support those in a home or community environment). Thanks to the easy transference of digital images, telehealth also creates a healthcare professional network: now an X-ray taken in, for example, Leeds can be seen quickly and easily by a specialist consultant in London. The best use of telehealth, therefore, can decrease waiting list times by remotely linking patients, GPs and consultant specialists, thus avoiding unnecessary referrals.

Iain Hunter is General Manager at The Scottish Centre for Telehealth, an internal advisory body for the NHS in Scotland. “We deal with two key areas,” he explains. “The first is ‘telemonitoring’ which involves monitoring a patient in their own home.” Equipping a patient with a new technology platform, says Iain - such as a desktop facility with a webcam and attached medical devices - can reduce hospital re-admissions. “Instead of telling a patient to come back to hospital in two weeks, their vital signs can be monitored remotely – thus giving early warning of healthcare problems.” This is preventative, anticipatory care.

The UK: leading the way
The SCT’s second key area of telehealth is ‘teleconsulting’. “We have examples of patients in remote areas such as Shetland who have been seen at a distance on a screen by consultants in Aberdeen,” says Iain. “Telehealth technology is improving all the time and it has huge potential.”

The UK now leads the way in the telehealth field. In April 2008, Scotland’s Minister for Public Health, Shona Robison, announced that The National Telecare Programme will receive an additional £8 million from the Scottish Government, with £4million made available in 2008-09, and a further £4 million earmarked for 2009-10. In May 2008, the first phase of a revolutionary picture archiving and communications system (PACS) rollout was completed to all hospital trusts in England (enabling central storage of digital images and sharing across an entire hospital network).

Opportunities for overseas investors
Overseas companies are working in the British telehealth sector in various exciting ways. Finnish company Medixine piloted a telemedicine service at 10 practices across Cornwall, targeting 1000 Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease patients with a system which warns them about adverse weather conditions (which can worsen their illness).

New innovations such as these – and new partnerships – are vital for the future development of telehealth. “We will not achieve breakthroughs in telehealth without engaging with industry,” warns SCT’s Iain Hunter, citing the Health Presence Booth at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, which SCT developed in conjunction with American company Cisco Systems.

The Health Presence Booth combines state-of-the-art video, audio, and medical information to create an environment similar to a visit to a GP. “These booths can be situated in remote villagers and even the headquarters of large organisations,” explains Iain. “We’re working with Cisco Systems to develop something the patient likes and which the medical practitioner feels comfortable with.”

Telehealth best practice
In the UK, telehealth initiatives are launched regularly. In May, Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Health, announced “the beginning of a £31 million programme to test the potential of technologies such as telecare and telehealth.” He also announced an expert learning group to consider how best telehealth schemes can be implemented across the country. At 2008’s Managing Long Term Conditions conference, UK company Tunstall demonstrated how its latest telehealth solutions are being successfully used by NHS Trusts; and in March, Nottingham City Primary Care Trust launched one of the UK’s largest mainstream deployments of telehealth to dramatically reduce the 22,000 hospital admissions and the GP visits associated with long-term conditions.

Streamlined care and cost savings
In the NHS, the benefits from telehealth are already being felt. The National Telecare Programme in Scotland has saved 1,800 hospital bed days and 6,900 care home bed days, worth nearly £3million to NHS Scotland. And during a five month telehealthcare pilot, Sheffield Primary Care Trust reduced home visits by 80% and realised cost savings of around £35,000 – results which won the Trust a prestigious NHS Health and Social Care award for its innovative approach to addressing long-term needs.

“At the Scottish Centre for Telehealth, we are constantly evaluating telehealth programmes,” says Iain Hunter. “We are having success and indications are good. Patients seem to love it.

“It is important to stress, however, that telehealth will never replace a doctor. It is just another piece of the jigsaw to help a patient receive the appropriate care at the appropriate time.”