Telemedicine is still in the early stages in Germany. But electronic monitoring of people’s pulse, blood sugar, blood pressure and weight could soon make life easier for many sick people and may even save lives.
“The better the treatment, the higher the survival rate,” says Dirk Ronneberger, head of the Telemedicine Centre for the German Institute of Chronic Heart Diseases in Bamberg.
Data on around 150 patients is collected at the centre. One of those patients is Hermann Stenns. The Gelsenkirchen pensioner and heart patient has watched his electronic devices for months to help him lose weight.
“I get on my scales, which has a built-in transmitter. My special mobile phone turns on automatically and the data is sent, just like that,” he says. The results go straight to the centre’s computer.
If Stenns gains weight, medical specialists are quickly notified and step in to warn him about the trouble extra weight causes heart patients.
“I then get advised to go to the doctor,” says Stenns.
These early warnings have helped him avoid multiple problems. For doctors like Ronneberger, that’s the great advantage of telemedicine.
“This reduces the use of emergency doctors and hospital stays. It improves the standard of life for patients.” Stenns finds it “relaxing to be monitored” and to have someone to turn at all times.
Telemedicine focuses primarily on people with chronic heart disease, mainly because the number of people with the disease is increasing, says Ronneberger.
Results are easy to verify with that group.
“This brings quick success for patients,” he says. But the new technology can also be used for diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma or certain kinds of lung disease.
The patients are usually equipped with a telephone, scales and electronic devices to measure blood pressure and pulse.
Additionally, they receive small, mobile devices that can be used to perform an ECG regardless of place or time.
“The patient attaches the device to his chest, secures the sensors to his skin and sends the information by holding his telephone receiver to the device,” explains Prof Harold Korb, medical director for the Personal HealthCare-Telemedicine firm in Dusseldorf.
There are also mobile phones with electrodes in the back that can receive and send information. In an emergency, the patient’s location can be determined.
Patients do sometimes have trouble figuring out the tangle of new devices.
“There should just be one button,” says Korb.
ECG-capable devices cost at least €150 (RM690) while a blood pressure device costs around €70 (RM322). Setting up a telemedicine centre involves additional costs.
Insurance companies are currently assuming part of the cost of telemedicine including technology, education and medical care.
Specialists regularly check in on the patients, who become more and more self-sufficient with time.
Walther says first results have shown that “the patients have learned how to survive with their illness, know their limits and what they should avoid.”
A patient’s doctor is the first contact point and accepts an application for which he receives an extra payment. The Allgemeinen Ortskrankenkassen (AOK – General Local Health Fund) is working on model projects.
“We have heart program patients in the German states of Bavaria, Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Westphalian-Lippe. AOK-Bavaria is also working with patients with breathing problems,” says Udo Barske, a spokesman for the nationwide organization.
Additionally, AOK members in Brandenburg are participating in a project with “tele-nurses.” They measure a patient’s blood pressure and sugar levels at home and can notify doctors by radio. But not every health care fund offers telemedicine.
The companies hope that the program can increase life quality in the long term and reduce prices for the insured. Taunus BKK expects savings of €4.7mil (RM21.62mil) annually.
Another program should create electronic patient files containing all results and studies, and make them accessible to general practitioners, specialists and emergency doctors.
“This means fewer time-consuming repeated tests and a more intensive cooperation between general practitioners, specialists and clinics,” says TK spokeswoman Walther.
It also means improved coordination for the care of the patient.