Video calls for the elderly are helping reduce strain on stretched NHS

25 May 2019, 17:30 | Updated: 26 May 2019, 08:38

New technologies including video calls are being used in a trial in Manchester to help reduce the strain on stretched NHS services.

Sky News was granted exclusive access to the Digital Healthcare Unit at Tameside Hospital where the team has prevented 1,000 avoidable visits to A&E; and saved 2,000 GP appointments over the last year.

At first sight, the unit looks like a call centre - but on closer inspection the people wearing headsets are nurses on video calls with elderly people discussing and showing their ailments.

Their work is estimated to have saved £1.3m for the NHS so far, money which will be reinvested into frontline healthcare.

In circumstances where elderly people may have previously called for an ambulance or GP they can now dial in for an assessment.

The service is being used by 44 care homes, as well as sheltered accommodation in Greater Manchester, and 3,500 patients also use it to communicate with medical staff from their own homes.

Dr Raj Patel from NHS England said the pilot wasn't for people who can't access technology.

"This is not for those elderly. They can access healthcare in the traditional way using the phone and GP appointment.

"This is for the very frail and vulnerable who are already in nursing homes or settings where they require 24-hour care. It is about making the best use of the public's pound."

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The digital scheme in Greater Manchester has also integrated health and social care services, allowing nurses to contact a GP or the council depending on what assistance is required.

The work is an example of what can be achieved when teams from the NHS, local authorities and care home providers work together - but across the country, just 14 areas so far have integrated care systems.

Integrated healthcare will be rolled out nationally by 2021.

Beryl Penkett is one of the patients monitored using the technology at home. This consists of an intercom system where nurses in the Digital Healthcare Team can communicate with her over a speaker.

An alarm sounds on her pill dispenser to remind her to take her medication. If she forgets, a nurse will contact her through the intercom to check she's ok.

In turn, if she needs their help or has a fall, there's a button she can press on a pendant she wears around her neck to call for assistance. The response time from a council warden is 20 minutes.

"It's made a big difference to me because it makes me independent," says Beryl, adding it also provided "peace of mind that if I fall, somebody is there on the other end".

To have this service at home costs Beryl £36 a month. It's not money every elderly person has to spare and Sky News was told there's an attendance allowance people can apply for to access this service.

But it's not just a question of cost, there are still many people who prefer a face-to-face service when it comes to medical attention.

"There is a danger that as we pursue more digital approaches we leave people behind," said Adam Steventon from the Health Foundation.

"We know that not everybody is able or interested in using technology to access healthcare and particularly amongst people with lower incomes - we hear more people saying that they will not be willing to have video conferences with their GP.

"So the challenge here is to make sure the care works for everybody and there might be different approaches to delivering care for different parts of the population."