Jochem Gerdesmann, 65, is doubly fortunate. Despite a serious heart attack eight years ago, he still works as a developer. He builds equipment for telemonitoring patients with chronic heart disease, thereby helping others as well as himself.
Gerdesmann is one of two to three million people in Germany who suffer from chronic heart disease. In 2010, this chronic condition was the second most common reason for hospitalization in Germany and the third most common cause of death. Sufferers in rural regions were especially badly affected, since emergency services travel greater distances to reach them than in urban areas. Moreover, medical care provision is set to deteriorate further. By 2015, around 50 percent of medical practitioners in rural regions will retire. At the same time the number of people aged 60 or more will increase by 25 percent. According to the Association of Towns and Local Authorities, there will be around 20,000 doctors too few in the future. Even now, a general practitioner in sparsely populated areas has to look after more than twice as many people as a colleague in the city.
Better medical care
In the federal states of eastern Germany, this is not a new problem. Efforts to find new care models have been ongoing for years. Telemedicine could be the way to a solution. Anita Tack, Health Minister of the federal state of Brandenburg, thinks that telemedicine offers great opportunities to improve medical provision. “First and foremost, general practitioner services to patients in rural regions could benefit from the use of telemedicine procedures,” she said.
The Health Minister moved a step closer to her goal in October 2011, when Germany’s first areawide telemedicine network went online in Brandenburg. In future, telemedicine centers at the Carl Thiem Hospital in Cottbus and the Municipal Hospital in Brandenburg/Havel will provide round-the-clock care to around 500 high-risk patients with chronic heart disease.
For patients like Jochem Gerdesmann that means less risk and a better quality of life. Previously, he frequently had to go to hospital or to a doctor for routine checks. Now, he takes key medical measurements such as weight, blood pressure and ECG himself on a daily basis. “That makes me independent of hospital doctors. I can take the readings anywhere, even on a camp site,” he explained.
Secure data network
Patients benefiting from telemedicine use their measuring devices to send the data automatically by Bluetooth to a base station. From there it is forwarded via a secure virtual private network (VPN) directly to the electronic patient record kept by one of the two telemedicine centers. A team of doctors monitors and analyzes the data and if there are signs of a critical condition informs the patients, their general practitioners or cardiologists, or in an extreme case the emergency doctor. Doctors in private practice also have access to their patients’ vital data, which they can discuss with the patient at their next appointment.
Telemedicine saves time and costs
The technology and data protection are regarded as fully developed. Not least, surveys confirm the economic efficiency of telemedicine. It helps to avoid duplicated tests and reduces administrative work, while patients benefit by saving time and money spent on visits to doctors. They can measure their vital signs even when on holiday and continue to receive medical attention. That is why Heidrun Grünewald, chief executive of the Carl Thiem Hospital, is already thinking ahead. “At the moment we are only monitoring patients with chronic heart disease, but tomorrow pregnant women at risk, diabetics, stroke patients and high-maintenance patients could be integrated into the system. We are preparing for that,” she said.