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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 December 2005, 05:00 GMT
How technology is aiding medicine
By Jane Dreaper
BBC News health correspondent

Computers play a key role
Computers and mobiles phones are playing an increasingly valuable role in helping doctors and patients monitor conditions such as diabetes on a daily basis.

And government ministers believe that new technology can also be harnessed to help elderly people live independently for longer.

Nellie Hannaford, who's 93, has benefited from a small computer in her flat in Maidstone, Kent.

The equipment monitors Mrs Hannaford's

blood pressure and takes other medical information, before sending the readings back to her doctor.

We can keep an eye on them when they're in their own homes
Dr Alison Milroy

The computer has an electronic voice which issues instructions.

"It gives you confidence because you know you're being tested every so often," said Mrs Hannaford.

No burden

Like many people of her generation, Mrs Hannaford is keen to not be a burden to others.

She cracked her hip in a fall a year ago, and has chronic high blood pressure.

It's about using new technology to give people peace of mind
Liam Byrne

The computer plays a vital part in helping her stay safely in her own home - and gives peace of mind to her and her daughter, Mary.

This pilot scheme has involved just a handful of people in Kent so far, but the county council is so impressed it's spending a million pounds on making the equipment more widely available.

Doctors who were initially sceptical like the fact that they get a pattern of information about a patient's condition.

Mrs Hannaford's GP, Dr Alison Milroy, said: "It doesn't do away with visits to the surgery completely.

"But it's an additional service for people who are vulnerable - so that in between, when they wouldn't be planning to see us, we can keep an eye on them when they're in their own homes."

Glucose levels

Another system being used by a thousand patients in Oxford, Dundee, Liverpool, Ipswich, Aberystwyth and east London deploys mobile phone technology to help patients with diabetes monitor their blood glucose levels.

Again, the information gets sent straight back to their GP for immediate analysis.

It has been developed by Lionel Tarassenko, a professor in electrical engineering at Oxford University, who said: "Our oldest subject has been 81 and they've had no real problem using it.

"Even if they've never used a mobile phone before, we find that if people are motivated to bring their diabetes under control, this technology really works for them."

Professor Tarassenko is hoping to get the number of users up to 10,000 next year.

"The savings are really on a national scale," he added.

"It costs a staggering six billion pounds a year for the NHS to support people with the complications of poorly managed diabetes - they may go blind or have lower limb problems, requiring amputation.

"The government is keen to try to do something about these problems - they have begun various initiatives to encourage people to self-manage their condition.

"It is a difficult issue though - it's not like waiting lists where something they do today will have an effect tomorrow - with this, the effect will be a decade or two down the road."


Ministers are already investing some money in new technology that can help people's long-term care.

Cash is being released to councils over the next two years, to help them develop sensor systems in elderly people's homes.

It might sound like something from the Big Brother house, but in fact these sensors could detect problems such as overflowing water or someone falling to the floor.

The care services minister, Liam Byrne, said the technology - called Telecare - was a key part of helping ensure dignity for older people.

"It's about using new technology to give people peace of mind - so they can live in their own home, but know that help is at hand if anything goes wrong.

But it's also about practical tools that, for example, automatically switch on the lights if you get up at night."

And of course technology like this has the potential to reduce hospital admissions - an objective that's also important to the government.

Telemedicine, it seems, is destined for a bright future.

NHS Stories: Telemedicine
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