Three million patients with chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart conditions are to get hi-tech equipment to monitor their health at home, Prime Minister David Cameron announced today.
The "tele-health" drive will allow vital health checks to be carried out and sent electronically to GPs without the need for the patient to make an appointment or visit a clinic.
Following a successful pilot scheme, Mr Cameron said it will be rolled out across the country to reach three million patients over the next five years.
The announcement came as the Prime Minister unveiled a range of measures designed to boost Britain's pharmaceutical industry, encourage medical breakthroughs and get life-saving drugs to patients faster.
Speaking in London, Mr Cameron said he wanted the NHS to be "the fastest adopter of new ideas in the world".
"Just look at our approach to tele-health - getting new technology into patients' homes so they can be monitored remotely," he said.
"We've trialled it, it's been a huge success, and now we're on a drive to roll this out nationwide.
"The aim - to improve three million lives over the next five years.
"This is going to make an extraordinary difference to people. Diabetics taking their blood sugar levels at home, and having them checked by a nurse. Heart disease patients having their blood pressure and pulse rate checked, without leaving their home.
"Dignity, convenience and independence for millions of people."
He added: "This is not just a good healthcare story. It's going to put us miles ahead of other countries commercially too, as part of our plan to make our NHS the driver of innovation in UK life sciences."
Launching the Government's Strategy for UK Life Sciences, Mr Cameron also confirmed plans for:
:: A £180 million catalyst fund to help speed new medical treatments through the so-called "valley of death" between development in the laboratory and use on patients.
:: An "early access scheme" to allow patients in the advanced stages of diseases like brain and lung cancer, for whom no other treatment is available, to obtain treatment with experimental drugs and technologies.
:: A consultation on changes to the use of NHS patient data, which could see more information shared with private healthcare companies and data automatically included in clinical research unless individuals opt out.
:: A £50 million new cell therapy technology and innovation centre in London to help turn scientific discoveries into commercial products to help patients with illnesses like Parkinson's.
:: A new app and web portal to help members of the public participate in clinical trials.
:: Investment of £10 million in a collaboration between the Medical Research Council and AstraZeneca to fund academic research into a broad range of diseases.
Amid mounting fears that Britain could slip back into recession, Mr Cameron made clear he believes the pharmaceutical industry has the potential to drive growth and to help rebalance the UK economy away from financial services.
The life sciences sector already employs more than 160,000 people in 4,500 companies in the UK, and has an annual turnover of £50 billion.
The Prime Minister told an audience drawn from the industry that the coalition's key strategy was "opening up the NHS to new ideas".
"The end-game is for the NHS to be working hand-in-glove with you as the fastest adopter of new ideas in the world, acting as a huge magnet to pull new innovations through, right along the food-chain - from the labs to the boardrooms to the hospital bed," he said.
Closer collaboration with life science companies could mean giving them more freedom to run clinical trials inside hospitals, as well as access to anonymised patient records.
A new approach to regulation and procurement could speed access to new drugs for patients in the advanced stages of a disease, where no other treatments are available.
"As long as the drug qualifies for the scheme, it should be up to patients and doctors to decide whether they want to use it," said Mr Cameron.
"This could mean brand new discoveries, fresh from the lab, being administered to patients here before anywhere else in the world."
Some of the PM's ideas have already encountered strong opposition from privacy campaigners, while Labour has warned of NHS privatisation by the back door.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham warned Mr Cameron not to "throw away essential safeguards in his desperation to develop a credible industrial strategy".
Mr Burnham said: "Where we have a big difference with the PM is on his willingness to open up the NHS to the private sector.
"He sees no limit on the involvement of the private sector and says he wants it to be a 'fantastic business'.
"In his desperation to develop a credible industrial strategy, he seems willing to put large chunks of our NHS up for sale. Our NHS is too precious to too many people for that to happen."
Joyce Robbins, of Patient Concern, said many people would be "deeply disturbed" by the notion that their private medical records could be handed to firms seeking new markets.
"This data is absolutely private; it is not the Government's to give," she said.
The Three Million Lives tele-health programme is to be rolled out in England only, where around 15 million patients are currently living with long-term illnesses.
Industry will pick up the bill of around £750 million over the first five years.
But the Department of Health expects the NHS to save as much as £1.2 billion over the period, thanks to reduced demand for GP appointments and more timely health information minimising unnecessary hospital stays.
Early evidence from a trial in Kent, Cornwall and the London Borough of Newham indicates a 45% reduction in mortality - equating to 120 people still being alive who would otherwise have died.
There were also significant reductions in emergency admissions (down 21%), planned hospital admissions (down 24%), visits to A&E (15%), days in hospital (14%) and "tariff" costs for treatment (8%).
The trial involved 6,191 people in 238 GP practices and was the largest of its kind in the world so far. It focused on the long-term conditions diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease.
Some 5,000 patients are currently using home-based tele-health equipment to read vital health signs such as pulse, weight, respiration and blood oxygen levels, which can be automatically transmitted online and read by health professionals in a different location.
Clinicians monitor daily readings to look for trends that could indicate a deterioration in condition.
Also included in the programme are tele-care technologies such as electronic sensors and aids which allow vulnerable people to live at home for longer.
These include sensors which check if a patient is in bed at night or if an outside door has been left open and automatically raise the alarm, via a call centre, with family, friends, neighbours or sheltered housing wardens if anything appears amiss.
DoH sources said that using tele-health and tele-care should lead to improved outcomes and reduce admissions to hospitals and care homes, improving the quality of life for patients and saving money which can then be reinvested in health and social care.
People with chronic conditions are high users of NHS health services, taking up 75% of inpatient bed days, 65% of outpatient appointments and 55% of all GP appointments and accounting for around 70% of total health and social care spending.
Without reform of the way care is delivered, they are expected to impose an additional £4 billion cost on the NHS within five years.
Intellect, the trade body for the UK's technology industry, welcomed today's announcement.
Director-general John Higgins said the trial had proved tele-health has the potential to bring "dramatic benefits" to people's lives.
And he added: "It is also a great opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in technologies that deliver healthcare to people at home.
"It gives UK companies a great platform on which to build innovative solutions and open up new markets."
Adrian Flowerday, managing director of tele-health technology company Docobo, said: "Tele-health has prevented unnecessary hospital admissions and visits to doctors, but most importantly it has improved the quality of care and life of patients.
"Patients are becoming less anxious, more confident, going out more and getting their lives back. Relatives and carers no longer need to spend hours worrying about their condition, waiting for nurse visits or travelling to the hospital to visit loved ones."
Meanwhile, civil liberties group Liberty cautioned against excessive relaxation of rules on the privacy of patients' data.
Director of policy Isabella Sankey said: "Politicians should be careful talking about the 'scale of their ambition' in the context of peoples' sacred trust in the NHS.
"We trust the NHS not just with our care but with our confidences. Anonymisation is a term which is often bandied about but there are real concerns about its effectiveness.
"If the Government is so convinced about the benefit of going down this road then it surely will not act without the broadest and most informed public consultation.
"In our view, fundamental changes to the disclosure regime cannot take place without primary legislation that provides crucial human rights protections."
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