Telemedicine could save one in four beds

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Telemedicine could save hospital beds and help health care - but the technology's "glitz and glamour" should not be used to overstate its benefits, doctors warned yesterday.

Telemedicine uses high-quality telephone and video links to let doctors see, talk to and diagnose patients remotely. It can reduce the need for hospital beds and allow people to use specialists who are geographically distant.

Richard Wootton, director of the Institute of Telemedicine at Queen's University, Belfast, said he wanted to see telemedicine integrated so that it is a routine part of the NHS. But he said it should be done cautiously, warning that companies bent on profit might dominate it as they have in the US.

"Some of the glitz and glamour shouldn't be allowed to eclipse the more practical matters such as whether it is more cost-effective," he said. "What we've seen in the States is telemedicine becoming a major commercial act. Some of us are concerned that major commercial interests are amassing in the wings ... who will try to drive the development of telemedicine before it can be shown to be a cost-effective method of health care."

Yesterday, doctors at a telemedicine conference at the Royal Society of Medicine were shown demonstrations of remote-controlled brain surgery.

Sir Christopher Paine, president of the Royal Society of Medicine, said: "The risks include things like patient confidentiality ... and the risk that the patient isn't always face-to-face with the doctor."

But the rewards of telemedicine could be considerable, several doctors said. Paul Johnson, a clinical physiologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, said telemedicine had helped free 10 percent of beds for babies and young children.

The underdeveloped lungs of premature babies are particularly vulnerable to infection: "A little infection can tip them over," he said. But such babies cope much better at home, with their families. Telemedicine lets parents hook small monitors to a baby and send data down the telephone to doctors.