Doctors expect to save hundreds of lives a year by assessing stroke patients taken ill overnight via high definition video links.
The first three hours after a stroke are crucial, but patients who live in rural areas can spend most of this time travelling to the nearest specialist.
A 15-week pilot study at five hospitals in the east of England has already saved six lives by enabling doctors to make an early assessment, and the technology is to be rolled out to 17 hospitals across the region.
Doctors use the link to speak to other staff and look at the patient's MRI scans. Patients can suffer two types of strokes - one that involves a clot, or one that involves bleeding. The technology allows the consultant to determine which one it is, and whether clot-busting drugs should be administered. The patient is at a far higher risk of dying if this does not happen quickly, and if the drugs are given to the wrong patient they can be fatal.
Some rural patients will take too long to travel to a consultant because many smaller hospitals do not have enough staff to provide overnight services. The technology means all patients have access to specialists, and has also been used to help cancer patients.
The video link is different to many video conferencing technologies because it is software-based, instead of relying on hardware. It is run on the NHS network N3, and consultants access the link through their home broadband connection. The East of England Health Authority is using IOCOM software from St Vincent's Healthcare, which produces H.264 high definition images.