New Telehealth App Connects Those With Motor Neuron Disease to Carers in UK

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by Forest Ray PhD |

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A new telehealth app to help people with motor neuron diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) connect with their healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic has been fast-tracked for use in the United Kingdom.

The Telehealth in Motor Neurone Disease (TiM) system, developed by the  University of Sheffield Institute for Translational Research (SITraN), is being made available to people with motor neuron disease (MND) in Sheffield and Edinburgh months ahead of schedule.

The TiM system is a touchscreen app through which patients and carers can communicate. Patients answer a weekly questionnaire and their answers are automatically analyzed and sent to their healthcare team.

Physicians then can monitor their patients’ progress and be alert to any changes in condition.

Patients have access to advice and help about managing their condition, attending virtual medical appointments and accessing troubleshooting guidance for medical equipment they use at home.

“This allows us to provide the right level of specialist care remotely, especially for the most vulnerable patients for who[m] traveling the sometimes lengthy distances for their appointments at specialist centers, could negatively affect their health,” said Chris McDermott, consultant neurologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, in a press release.

Even prior to the pandemic, researchers had been working on telemedicine tools for MND patients, noting that the symptoms of MNDs created significant barriers to managing the long distances many patients needed to travel in order to access specialist care.

“Motor neuron disease causes significant life-limiting problems and we had already recognized that it was not ideal to ask patients to travel long distances for routine check-ups,” said Esther Hobson, honorary senior lecturer at SITraN.

“Covid-19 made it critical that we took extra steps to protect these very vulnerable patients away from a hospital setting whilst continuing to manage their highly specialized care,” Hobson said.

The system was expected to be made available later in the year, but was fast-tracked to help monitor vulnerable patients in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has driven the need for pioneers in the [National Health Service] to [try] new ways of communicating and caring for patients, particularly amongst at risk groups. Whilst this shift has been accelerated by the current pandemic, it could herald a long term change in how the NHS interacts with patients, catching up to the online communications used in other sectors,” said John Eaglesham, CEO of the technology firm Advanced Digital Innovation (UK) Limited (ADI).

“These changes will not only keep at-risk patients safe, but could also help to better manage the next major challenge on the NHS,” Eaglesham added.

The advanced schedule was made possible by a collaboration between SITraN, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and ADI. ADI has been working with Sheffield Teaching Hospitals’ musculoskeletal services for the past four years.

The TiM system was validated in a clinical pilot study (NCT02464748) of 40 MND patients and their main informal carer, with patient and carer feedback helping to drive its design.

“Feedback so far has been extremely positive,” said Hobson, “with our patients telling us how grateful they were that we have rolled out the digital technology to care for them while keeping them safe.”