Wales at the Forefront of Telemedicine Revolution
Byline: By Madeleine Brindley Western Mail
The decision by Welsh Assembly Government officials to test-drive a robotic doctor on Welsh hospital wards, reveals just how far technology is being integrated into the NHS. Wales is at the forefront of a global telehealth revolution which has the potential to reshape the way we receive healthcare. Health Editor Madeleine Brindleyreports
BOTH the Welsh Assembly Government's 10-year plan for the future of the NHS in Wales, and the vision drawn up by health professionals, patient representatives and academics, envisages a health service which is among the best in the world.
Both talk about bringing health services closer to the patient, and moving more services back into the community.
At the heart of each of the two visions is a greater use of telehealth technologies.
But these technologies are neither the stuff of science fiction or wishful thinking, nor is the idea of using them to improve health services new, as hospitals and NHS organisations throughout Wales have been using telehealth in various forms for almost a decade.
Speaking at the seventh British Irish Council, on the Isle of Man, last month, First Minister Rhodri Morgan declared that Wales was at the forefront of the telehealth revolution.
He told delegates, 'Wales has a remarkable story to tell in this area. We have been at the forefront of telemedicine development in the UK for a number of years.'
Health Minister Dr Brian Gibbons added, 'Telemedicine is an important area of health care which is helping to enhance the patient experience by improving access to diagnosis and treatment.
'Patients in remote parts of Wales have benefited from the use of information and communication technology to provide healthcare from a distance and therefore keep patient services local.
'As we become more reliant on technology the potential for telemedicine to make further advances in the health service in Wales is huge.'
For the past 11 years, Welsh Assembly Government officials have been working to test telehealth technology and its applications in healthcare, testing patient acceptance of the new schemes and designing and implementing the infrastructure needed to deliver it.
Over that time investment in telehealth has grown considerably in Wales, from just a few hundred thousand pounds to millions - Dr Gibbons announced a commitment to spend an additional pounds 2.7m on telehealth over the next three years, earlier this year.
Telehealth - the term telemedicine has been replaced by the broader telehealth tag - literally means creating a presence of a health professional in a place where they physically cannot be. Most of the technology is based on the principle of video conferencing and the ability to send live and real-time images and other information to a remote site.
Richard Phillips, telehealth programme manager for the Welsh Assembly Government, said, 'We're doing an awful lot of work in the NHS and in health which is not medically-orientated.
'For example, the cancer networks are spread across the whole of Wales - to bring them together on a regular basis is a fairly major undertaking.
'Telehealth is a way of removing the geography and the distances so health care professionals can employ their time more efficiently and effectively, because they are not spending all their time travelling from point to point.'
While much telehealth work has concentrated on allowing experts, professionals and NHS managers to talk face-to-face over wide geographical distances without having to spend the best part of a day travelling, telehealth also holds exciting prospects and possibilities for patients.
For example, patients living in Mid Wales who have cancer are normally referred to Swansea for treatment, which involves a long and often arduous return journey to the centre. …