In a European first, Guy's and St Thomas' hospital trust in London are trialling software within the next 12 months that will allow senior consultants to monitor their patients via high definition video cameras. The system is in place in about 300 hospitals in the USA at the moment, and is reported to have reduced the length of hospital stays by 23%, and death rates by as much as 27%

Dr Richard Beale, clinical director of perioperative, critical care and pain services at Guy’s and St Thomas’, said: “It’s like an airport having a control tower, supporting what is going on throughout the system, so that the overall quality goes up and senior people are available when needed. The results in the US have generally been pretty encouraging. We just want to know whether it works in the NHS.”

The 'eICU' system, known as Philips 'telemedicine' technology, allows consultants to diagnose and treat patients from a centralised location remotely. Using two-way audio and HD video, the plans are to allow senior staff to monitor patients in the evenings and over weekends; in the UK, wards are commonly manned by junior doctors during these hours, so remote consultant support would go a long way towards solving the skills shortage faced by many hospitals.

eICU technology could eventually allow consultants to log on at home and check the condition of patients on the wards, and pass on advice to hospital-based colleagues. The remote team could also alert hospital based colleagues of any changes in a patient's condition.

Dr Brian Rosenfeld chief medical officer for telehealth at Philips, has said of the system: “We are able to identify clinical changes earlier than most clinicians are able to pick  them up." He also mentioned that the system could allow a remote user to monitor up to 150 beds, with "potentially myriad" cost savings.

The cameras are said to be so powerful that they can detect whether the pupil in a patient’s eye dilates to bright light, but the system does not record video 'footage' of them, and although patient consent is not required for the use of their system, Guy's and St Thomas' trust have committed to consulting patients' families regarding use of the system.

Patients in the U.S. were said to find it very reassuring, and Dr. Richard Beale seems to agree, telling the Evening Standard: “With Philips’ eICU program, the bedside clinical staff will have immediate access to a team of highly skilled senior colleagues who provide an added layer of support to help save lives, reduce complications and decrease the length of ICU stays.”

If the trial is a success, we expect to see this type of technology rolled out across the board, and it opens up a great many opportunities for e-Clinics. For example, you could Skype your GP rather than going in, cutting down on both home visits and appointment times!

The e-patient phenomenon has been on the rise for a while, but the rise of the e-doctor should be an interesting one to follow...