North London's Whittington teaching hospital is piloting an Internet- based monitoring system for severe asthma patients, in a pan-European experiment funded by the European Commission.
The project, called Medicate (medical diagnosis, communication and analysis throughout Europe) is claimed to be the first initiative that involves remote monitoring of patient health via the Internet with the central collation of data in a disease management system.
It is being run by a consortium of industrial, academic and clinical partners across Europe, including Cable & Wireless Communications, Erich Jaeger, Middlesex University, University College London, Licore Associates, Whittington Hospital trust and Hospital General de Manresa. The commission has provided a grant of 1.65m euros (£1.15m).
Asthma sufferers will use a portable monitoring device to record their breathing patterns three or four times a day, in their own home.
The data is sent on their phone line to a central disease management system. This software analyses the measurements and sends the results directly to the patient's consultant, who can review the results compared to guidelines and then approve or recommend changes to the course of treatment.
The data is strongly encrypted before it is dispatched across the Cable & Wireless secure Internet gateway, to protect the patients' privacy.
The disease management system is specially designed for the diagnosis and monitoring of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It records not only the patient's own lung function data, but also the environmental temperature and humidity and measurements of air pollution and quality. These are important in providing the correct treatment and diagnosis for the individual patient. Patients can also record their use of medication.
Part of the system's purpose is to save travelling time and expense. It also reduces the stress of frequent hospital visits and avoids the need for patients to keep extensive paper records to monitor their health.
'Consultants are also able to adjust treatment more quickly according to the test results, thus providing speedy relief,' says Richard Bayford, a researcher at Middlesex University.
But the central collection and analysis of data will also help epidemiologists understand asthma trends across different countries. According to recent figures from the National Asthma Campaign, asthma and wheezing in young children has almost doubled in less than a decade in Britain. No-one knows why, although intensive research into its causes is going on.
Last year, a study in Leicester found that 21 per cent of under-fives had been diagnosed with asthma, compared to 12 per cent in 1990. The disease causes 2,000 deaths a year in the UK, and more than 1.5 million children - one in seven - currently need treatment for asthma symptoms. At least one in 25 British adults needs treatment, and the NAC estimates that asthma now costs the UK over£2bn a year.
The consortium is being funded under the European Commission's TEN-Telecom research budget.
Initially, Medicate will run for two years with patients at the 480-bed Whittington Hospital and the Hospital General de Manresa, a 250-bed acute hospital in Catalonia, Spain.