Phone heart-check service to save lives

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The Independent Online
PATIENTS WORRIED they have heart problems can now send their heartbeats over the telephone for an instant check-up.

Europe's first heart telemonitoring service launched yesterday is expected to help save lives, cut waiting lists at hospitals and make savings for the National Health Service.

It has already attracted 550 GP practices throughout the United Kingdom who have contracted to use it for their patients, and may soon be followed by other telemonitoring services.

The service, run by Lifesign, has the potential to be used by up to 10 million people who report to their doctor with symptoms that could indicate heart problems. By monitoring symptoms as they occur doctors are able to get a quicker and more accurate picture of what is wrong.

Ronnie Royston, chairman of Lifesign, said: "A patient may go to see his GP with any of a whole range of symptoms; palpitations, chest pains, headaches, and so on.

"The doctor is not an expert in cardiology and he makes an appointment for him to see a specialist to have tests and that can take six weeks. Then there is another wait for the test results.

"Where the patient is given one of our cards, they don't need to be hospitalised for 24 hours to have their ECG monitored, and our service allows the patient to record their symptoms as and when they occur, reducing the number of wasted hospital visits."

The Lifesign service uses a recorder the size and shape of a credit card which contains chip technology and which will record the echogram or ECG from the heart.

When the patient is having symptoms, he presses the card to the chest for 30 seconds, and then puts it under a telephone mouthpiece and dials a free number. Seconds later the ECG appears on a screen in front of a cardiac technician at a call centre in Cardiff.

Based on what they see, the technician will contact the patient's doctor with varying degrees of urgency. There willeventually be about 70 cardiac technicians at the centre.

"We don't diagnose and we are not replacing the doctor," Mr Royston said. "We might say we think it is a good idea they go home and that their doctor will be in touch with them very shortly. Or we might say that we don't see a reason for them going home. We think it is potentially life saving, and that it will reduce waiting lists and save on beds."

The project launched by the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, is the biggest venture yet in the expanding area of telemedicine, where telephone wires are used to deliver health care.

Until now it has been used most for small groups of people. There have been projects involving telecare for workers on oil platforms and for scientists in Antarctica where doctors back at base can diagnose patients via camera images.

In some rural areas, patients have been saved trips to hospitals by having dermatological problems diagnosed from camcorder images.

Telemedicine has been slowly growing since the late 1960s, and has been rapidly expanding, particularly in the United States.

In the UK, teleradiology, telepatholgy, and teleconsulting have also been tried and in Ireland, remote islanders have been taking part in a telepsychiatry project.

It is possible that many other groups of patients could benefit from telemonitoring too, including women with problem pregnancies, and diabetics.