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Ask anyone on from the general public what telehealth is, you will probably get a blank response.  If you were to tell them what telehealth can do for them, I’m sure you would get an enthusiastic response.  Telehealth has the power to fit care around patients where it is needed.  It can monitor conditions remotely and it can intervene when it spots something is wrong, way before it’s too late.

 

What is Telehealth?

So what is telehealth you might ask?  At its core, it is essentially the remote monitoring of patient health data wherever they might be.  Predominantly the patient is in their home, elderly and is suffering from a long term condition or has a chronic disease.  But increasingly, telehealth is allowing citizens to take control of their own well-being and understand what is happening to them physiologically so they can lead a better, healthier life.  The development of telehealth has grown from a system to monitor vital health data, into one where active citizens are becoming more aware of their own lifestyle and the effect it has on their health.

 

People with long term conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, and heart failure are most at risk of complication of their condition if they aren’t monitored regularly.  Without monitoring, there is an increased risk of complication in the condition of the patient.  In more countries in the developed world, those three conditions are the top three reasons for urgent assessment at an accident and emergency department, emergency admission to hospital and unplanned admission to hospital.

 

As our population grows older and increases in size, then logically you would expect the healthcare economy to provide services they require for treatment should also increase - but it isn’t.  There is an unprecedented demand on healthcare services globally but the scale of economy required to treat patients cannot grow in proportion.


This situation was recognised in the early part of this century by many governments, including the UK.  And so in 2008, after decades of the benefits of telehealth technology being discussed by scientists, health economists and technologists, the UK government decided to really investigate the benefits of telehealth on a large scale.  Well, large by a European point of view anyway.

 

The *Whole System Demonstrator Programme was setup by the Department of Health to capture data and to investigate if telehealth could live up to its promises.  6,191 patients and 238 GP practices in the districts of Newham, Kent and Cornwall were recruited to take part.  Over the course of the experiment, twelve months’ worth of data was captured.  The type of data included what you would expect – blood pressure, temperature, blood oxygen saturation, and ECG.  But it also captured other data such activity, weight, sleep patterns and much more.

 

What can telehealth do?

Over the course of the programme, data started to emerge that showed how dramatic early intervention can be.  The programme found that when telehealth monitoring techniques and protocols for early intervention were implemented for patients with long term conditions, there was a;

  • 15% reduction in accident and emergency visits
  • 20% reduction in emergency admissions to hospital
  • 14% reduction in elective admissions and bed days
  • 8% reduction in costs to the healthcare economy
  • 45% reduction in mortality rates

A 45% reduction in mortality rates is a huge figure.  That is 2,785 people in this programme alone that immediately benefited by having their condition monitored from afar, analysed by smart algorithms and relayed to their GP so they could intervene and take swift action.

 

It is estimated that the programme, should it be introduced on a wider scale, could also save the government in the region of £40Bn (that’s €56.6Bn or $61.4Bn) from the healthcare budget in this way. You can only imagine the number of lives it would save and improve.

 

The future of telehealth

Where is telehealth now and where will it be in ten years time? As technology has developed at a pace with the Internet of Things (IoT), smart home hubs and wearable devices such as the Microsoft Band, the Scanadou Scout and other such products, then it has also become affordable.  There are governments that have experimented with the technology and introduced smaller scale projects, but telehealth has been most embraced by the public – citizens who wish to capture their own health data and analyse thief lifestyles themselves or to monitor their loved ones.

 

But what to do with the data?  This is where video, and in particular video conferencing comes to the fore. Those smart algorithms I mentioned earlier, that’s the inflection point at when a decision is made to intervene.  If the data shows a sudden rise in blood pressure for example, then the practice nurse back at the GP surgery can check up on the wearer.  Perhaps there was a change in diet or a reduction in physical activity.  It might be the tell-tale sign, the data that indicates there is a more serious problem developing and that action must be taken now.  Using video, the GP nurse can call the patient and see for themselves.  You can get a lot from a phone call, but you take a remote consultation to a new level of clarity and detail when you can see the patient.  From there, information can be provided or an appointment – in person – can be arranged if the GP nurse feels it is required.

 

How many times do you forget something you were told to do or a snippet of information that might help you?  All too often no doubt.  So imagine how difficult it could be for an older citizen to recall everything in a consultation with the nurse.  Once the consultation is over, that patient can have access to the recording of the session so they can remind themselves what it is they need to do – don’t use salt perhaps, watch insulin levels if they suffered from diabetes, or stay indoors when the weather is cold if they were suffering from COPD.  The information can be replayed from the recording.

 

In the next twelve months, we will see more healthcare systems providing integrated patient monitoring, providing information and enabling video based consultations and recordings through their own apps and web sites, independent of the type of device the citizen has access to.  Polycom will play an important part in enabling those integrated, in app solutions.

 

Whether it will be driven by health providers, insurance companies or citizens themselves, one thing you can be sure of is that telehealth will become more important than ever before.  And maybe in a year’s time the general public will actually know a bit more of what telehealth is.

 

*You can find out more about the Whole System Demonstrator Programme findings from here.

 

This blog is part of a series of 25 blogs that take a look at how Polycom has transformed industries and business functions.

These blogs are a variety of retrospective, current and visionary perspectives with the common thread of unleashing the power of human collaboration. Follow the hashtag #Polycom25 on Twitter for tweets about this significant anniversary in our history.

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