Telemedicine touted as £46 million NHS cost saving option

Outsourcing cardiac tests using telecommunications could save 90,000 accident and emergency visits, potentially saving 46 million for the National Health Service (NHS) annually, according to a report by NHS Northwest.

A six-month pilot of cardiac telemedicine machines in 17 clinics across Cumbria and Lancashire showed how electrocardiogram (ECG) tests could use IT to cut treatment times and costs for patients with chest pains and heart problems.

A telemedicine ECG machine is similar to a standard one, but rather than print out the results they transmit them to an external clinical call centre, which is open 24 hours a day. There, the results are interpreted and sent back over email or fax, without having to wait for a GP or send the patient to a hospital.

As well, as the telemedicine ECG devices are pocket sized, they can be used anywhere.

"When you need an ECG to diagnose a problem with the heart rhythm or the cause of a pain in the chest, you need it there and then. You also need somebody to interpret it accurately. But in rural areas like parts of Cumbria and Lancashire, access to expert interpretation is not always immediately available," said Roger Boyle, the national director of heart disease for the Department of Health.

"Cardiac telemedicine is an excellent way to ensure that expert advice is available in a matter of minutes, not only to the patient but also to the healthcare professionals involved with the care," he added.

For the pilot, the NHS used BroomWell Healthwatch devices and call centres. The handheld devices scan a patient's chest and send the report over telephone in 45 seconds. The report is usually returned within ten minutes, although some clinicians in the pilot reported delays of about 30 to 40 minutes.

Aside from just preventing delays, the technology can encourage early detection of heart problems.

"It's a quick and accurate way of making a diagnosis. It's more convenient for the patients, as they're dealing with people that they know and trust, rather than somebody anonymous at the hospital," said one Lancashire GP involved in the pilot. "They are often less stressed and anxious about coming to the surgery rather than going to the hospital. I believe it can make a huge difference to the quality of care we offer."