Wireless monitor 'relieves pressure' on nursing staff
The NHS is starting to test a sticking-plaster-sized patient-monitoring patch.
Placed on the chest, it wirelessly transmits data on heart rate, breathing and body-temperature while the patient is free to move around.
Independent experts say the system, developed in Britain, could ease pressure on wards and has the potential to monitor patients in their own home.
But the Royal College of Nursing says there is no substitute for having enough staff.
Routine checks for vital signs - including temperature, blood pressure and heart rate - are a key part of care and safety in hospitals.
Typically they may be carried out every four hours, depending on the patient's condition.
But patients can deteriorate between checks, putting them at risk.
A hospital in Brighton run by the private healthcare firm Spire has been testing the battery-powered patch, which updates information on some of the vital signs every couple of minutes.
The wireless device, developed by the Oxford-based firm Sensium Healthcare, then issues an alert if the readings fall outside pre-set levels, indicating a potential problem.
The patch is placed on the chest just above the heart when the patient is admitted. There are no cables to any monitors. Instead, readings are recorded and transmitted to a box in each room that works like a wi-fi router, passing on data to the hospital IT system.
It does not replace the routine checks, but staff say it does ease some of the pressures.
Victoria Howard, a staff nurse at the hospital said the system was working well.
"It gives us a bit more time with some patients when we know some patients do need that bit more time," she said.
"Without this monitor, you're constantly thinking what's happening in the next room, and I should go in there and check them.
"Knowing this is on and it works well, we're able to spend that bit more time."
Most of the patients at this hospital are in for routine surgery. Some are being treated for cancer.
The matron, Lynette Awdrey, said the patches helped staff focus their efforts on the patients who needed the most support.
"It prioritises you," she said.
"Nothing will ever replace compete with clinical observation and the assessment of the patients. What this does is alert you sooner, so you can fulfil those observations and assessments of the patient and activate the appropriate care and treatment for them."
So far, she said, the patches had provided early detection of deterioration in about 12% of patients who had worn them. That is in line with findings from a small trial with the patches at a hospital in Los Angeles.
This could have important safety implications. A study in the British Medical Journal in 2012 concluded that nearly 12,000 deaths in hospitals in England had been preventable. It said clinical monitoring had been a problem in nearly a third of these deaths.
Another advantage of the device is that patients can move around freely. This reduces the risk of complications such as infections, helping patients to recover more quickly, so they can go home sooner, saving on the costs of healthcare.
David Hardman, 71, is happy to wear the patch.
"It gives me reassurance that there's something, or some equipment looking at it all the time," he said.
"And I think when the nurse is with you her mind is perhaps a bit more with you rather than thinking about what's going on in the other rooms."
Each patch costs £35 and lasts for five days - long enough for most hospital stays.
Wear at home
Independent experts say we are witnessing the start of a revolution in wearable technology, with great potential benefits in healthcare.
Prof Timothy Coats, a consultant in emergency medicine at Leicester Royal Infirmary, said the patch could be useful in a variety of different settings.
"This certainly could have a use in the emergency department from the emergency care phase right through to the first couple of days in hospital when the patient is more liable to deteriorate.
"It also has potentially an application for looking after patients in their own home, because we could observe them remotely rather than in hospital."
However he points out there are limitations with the current model, which measures heart rate, breathing and body temperature. It is being developed to provide more information, on blood pressure and oxygen levels.
The company says the patch is about to be tested at one NHS trust and 20 more are in talks.
The Royal College of Nursing's chief executive, Dr Peter Carter, said new technology could be very helpful in alerting nurses and doctors to a patient who was starting to deteriorate - but he also expressed a note of caution.
"Anything which helps that process has to be a good thing," he said.
"However, we also know that there is no substitute for having enough staff with the right level of skill on every ward, able to give each and every patient the care and attention that critically ill people need."