'Houston, we have an opportunity' - telehealth and telecare market expands

Conference told UK market for assistive technologies is growing

"Rather than 'Houston, we have a problem', it should be 'Houston, we have an opportunity'."

This is the view of industry experts, who told a conference last week that the increasing popularity of telehealth and telecare devices is creating a massive potential market so far relatively untapped in the UK.

We have got to recognise that people are actually important and if we can keep them connected to society they will actually deliver something back. We will do this by meeting the demand for independent living and that will be done by innovation in technology

Speaking at the annual international Telecare Meet The Buyers event at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in Buckinghamshire, Mike Biddle, innovation platform leader for assisted living at the Technology Strategy Board, and chairman of the European Ambient Assisted Living Joint Platform, told delegates: "Whether we like it or not, the Department of Health says that when you hit 50 you are old. However, over-50s in the UK spent £276 billion in 2008 and were responsible for about 44% of the total UK family spend. If you flip this round, you can start thinking of this as an increase in human capital."

Cuts in healthcare spending are bringing about a shift in services, with the emphasis moving away from treating illness to promoting health and wellbeing. This means keeping people, particularly those with long-term conditions such as respiratory and heart disease, living independently in the community for longer. Assistive technologies such as telehealth and telecare devices are therefore becoming more popular as a way of helping vulnerable people to better monitor their own condition and to raise an alert should they need help.

Biddle said: "Just because we might retire does not mean we have nothing to give back to society. You do not go from being a doctor one day to being a burden on the state the next. We have got to recognise that people are actually important and if we can keep them connected to society they will actually deliver something back. We will do this by meeting the demand for independent living and that will be done by innovation in technology."

"As an industry, we make no bones about it. As well as making people better and making the healthcare system in the UK more sustainable, we also want to grow UK business and create UK wealth."

Dr David Parry, chief executive of conference organiser, the South East Health Technologies Alliance, said many other European countries were looking to the UK to take the lead on the adoption of assistive technologies, but warned that a lack of interest from clinicians was threatening its widespread adoption.

His comments come just a few months after the Government published the findings of the Whole System Demonstrator (WSD), the world's largest randomised controlled trial of telehealth and telecare devices. It revealed that telehealth could help reduce A&E visits among those with long-term conditions by 15%, reduce emergency hospital admissions by 20% and reduce elective admissions by 14%. More importantly, the trial, which involved 6,000 people over three UK sites, recorded a 45% drop in mortality rates, and constituted an 8% reduction in tariff cost.

Dr Parry told the conference: "We know clinicians are sometimes not persuaded by the WSD and I don't know what we have to do, but the evidence it there. We need to find a way to engage with them and to engage with users."

As an industry, we make no bones about it. As well as making people better and making the healthcare system in the UK more sustainable, we also want to grow UK business and create UK wealth

Biddle added: "Some doctors do not think that the predicted saving of £180 per patient is enough to change the current system, so we need to work with industry through the Government's 3millionlives campaign to see how this can be done. This is not Whitehall saying 'we are going to do this'; it is about a transformational change and doing things in a better way and then thinking about what technology do we need to do that. There should be no argument, the evidence for assistive technologies is there."

Currently, 15 million people in the UK have a long-term medical condition. These patients are responsible for 50% of all GP appointments, 70% of all hospital inpatient bed days, 64% of outpatient appointments and constitute 70% of the overall healthcare budget.

Dr Tim Anstiss of the Academy for Health Coaching is a former GP and has set up Strategic Health, his own consultancy and training company dealing in health and wellbeing improvement. He said: "At the moment in the UK we have a sickcare system, not a healthcare system.

"We need disruptive innovations to stop people developing long-term conditions and this can be done through effective telehealth and telecare devices."

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