Three million people in England are set to get access to telehealth by 2017, under government plans to firmly push the NHS into the digital era and become a global leader in the field.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced yesterday that plans to roll out telehealth to a significant number of patients are now well underway.

Seven 'pathfinders' - comprised of the NHS and local authority organisations such as clinical commissioning groups - are set to award contracts to industry suppliers early next year, and companies will be providing technologies and services at no upfront cost, he said.

This means that 100,000 patients could benefit from telehealth technologies in 2013, as part of a commitment "on a scale never seen before in the UK," according to the Department of Health.

The seven pathfinders offering this new technology to patients will give the NHS Commissioning Board (NHSCB) "important insight into how best to extend this option to any patient managing prolonged ill health or a chronic condition," said NHSCB chief executive David Nicholson.

Telehealth is basically the use of electronic information and technology to enable patients to manage their health more independently, reducing the need for face-to-face contact with a healthcare professional or visits to the hospital.

Remote care

The technology allows the measurement of vital health signs, such as pulse, weight, respiration and blood oxygen levels, in the home, which is then transmitted to health professionals in a different location. 

More than 15 million people in England are living with at least one long-term condition, and this number is expected to rise to 18 million over the next 20 years, placing a huge strain on healthcare resources.  

Around 75% of all inpatient bed days, 65% of outpatient appointments and 55% of all GP appointments are accounted for by patients with long-term conditions.

According to the government's Whole System Demonstrator project, which it says is the world's largest randomised control trial of telehealth and telecare, using these technologies could result in a 20% cut in emergency admissions, a 15% reduction in A&E visits and a 45% reduction in mortality, thereby saving both patient lives and NHS money.