Healthcare in the UK is undergoing a number of changes. With new governments come new ambitions, and the NHS is always front and centre.
Things have been no different with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, who have taken it upon themselves to try to save money while modernising the system.
The government's attempts have met with mixed reactions, but one thing they have done is continue the growing trend of technology in healthcare. Medical records are set to be digitised by 2015 and health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for the entire NHS to be paperless by 2018.
But it isn't just healthcare administration that benefits from improved technology. The most important way it can help is with the care of patients.
One way technology has been changing lives is in the increasing use of video links. If a patient has a long-term condition but is far away from their nearest health centre, it can become a trial to manage. And if an emergency happens in a remote location, speedy communication can save lives.
Video has become central to helping in these situations and the Public Sector winner in Computer Weekly's European User Awards for Networking, Imerja, has been working hard to roll out its video as a service (VaaS) system.
Access to specialist care
Imerja’s VaaS cloud product aims to offer access to specialist care and enables healthcare professionals and patients to communicate remotely by using video technology and sharp audio links, regardless of their location.
The system works over secure connections and, as well as audio and video-conferencing, it can access key hospital systems through a custom desktop, enabling consultants to see images of CT scans, medical records and other relevant information.
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It was first deployed in 2011 to deliver the Cumbria and Lancashire Telestroke Network, a fully managed service on behalf of Virgin Media Business.
A national health initiative in 2007 said that every person in the UK should have access to thrombolysis treatment – which dissolves blood clots in the brain that cause a stroke – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But although the intention was sound, not every area of the country had the facilities to make it happen.
By rolling out a nationwide video link between hospitals, and then to specialist doctors, it allowed consultants to be anywhere – with a strong internet connection – to hold a video conference with staff and patients at a hospital, and be able to diagnose and order treatment without physically being in the room.
Gus Hartley, programme lead for NHS North of England, says: “I have worked with Imerja on the implementation, management and running of the Lancashire WAN and the Cumbria and Lancashire Telestroke Network.
"The core network underpinning the Telestroke project is quite complex, with clinicians being linked up directly from their own homes into trusts across the region to treat stroke patients, but Imerja has met every challenge it have been set.”
After the successful implementation in Cumbria and Lancashire, Imerja had proof of how its technology could help other healthcare professionals and their patients, so began providing its VaaS solution to more NHS partners.
Sharing medical expertise via video links
Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool is one of Europe’s biggest and busiest children’s hospitals. Every year it looks after more than 270,000 children, young people and their families, and leads research into children’s medicines, infection, inflammation and oncology.
The hospital has adopted the VaaS system in its paediatric neurology department. With a limited number of paediatric neurologists working in the North West, the service is being used to distribute expertise between multiple hospital sites across the region.
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This, in turn, enables patients to have remote assessments and diagnoses, and offers more support to patients and their families during the course of treatment.
Dr Ram Kumar, pediatric neurologist at Alder Hey Hospital, says: “Imerja has been incredibly responsive to our suggestions and has done a great job of connecting Alder Hey with other hospitals, allowing the full potential of this innovative technology to be unlocked.
"I believe video communication and remote assessment has great potential for improving access to care and easing pressure on the healthcare system.”
Remote support for elderly outpatients
Blackpool’s Victoria Hospital has also adopted the technology. This large acute hospital treats more than 80,000 day-case and inpatients and in excess of 200,000 outpatients from across Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre every year, as well as having one of the country's busiest A&E departments, attended by more than 80,000 people each year.
Victoria Hospital has used VaaS in a number of areas, but highlights how it is proving especially useful for providing remote support to elderly nursing home residents.
The hospital has a dedicated speech and language therapy (SLT) department, responsible for assessing the swallowing mechanism of post-stroke patients. This new use of video enables specialist medical staff to assess patients remotely, providing accessible care as well as a rapid response service should residents experience difficulty when eating or drinking.
Veronica Southern, principal speech and language therapist at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, says: “The video solution offers great diagnostic clarity through high-quality video and audio links, complete with zoom, pan and tilt capability.
"Hospital visits are often distressing for elderly patients, but with telehealth technology, we are able to provide timely support and high levels of care, while reducing hospital admissions and time-consuming home visits.”
Video-based progress assessments
Also in Lancashire, the system has been installed in Lancashire Teaching Hospital's renal department. There it enables doctors and nurses to assess patients’ progress remotely and doctors at the hospital believe it provides valuable support to patients who are performing dialysis at home.
This means patients can leave hospital earlier but have more confidence in performing remote dialysis because a specialist is on hand if needed, and have greater independence by remaining in their own home.
Scott Rayner, IT manager at Lancashire Teaching Hospital, said: “The video solution gives patients more independence, while providing peace of mind that support is on hand should they require it.”
Benefits for doctors and patients
Every organisation using the system has seen the benefits, from faster diagnosis to reduced travelling times, allowing doctors to focus on the more important part of their jobs.
For the patient, it means faster access to healthcare professionals and top specialists, no matter where they are in the country.
It also saves money because home visits cost about £110 and take up to 90 minutes, including travel. Replacing these with a 30-minute remote assessment makes a big difference.