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GPs pilot Met Office cold weather calls

Cold weather will trigger automated phone calls to COPD patients. Patrick Sachon reports

This winter, nine GP surgeries in Cornwall will pilot an innovative alert system for people with COPD.

An interactive automated voice call system will alert patients when Met Office COPD health forecasts indicate that the outdoor environment will put them at risk.

The Met Office has developed the system jointly with Medixine, a Finnish telemedicine company, to help improve patient well-being and to reduce hospital admissions.

'For the past two years the Met Office has provided COPD health forecasts to health professionals in Cornwall and a large number of other PCTs,' says Dr Tish Laing-Morton, Met Office clinical director.

The Met Office issues weekly COPD health forecasts plus elevated risk forecasts when cold weather is expected or when there are high levels of respiratory infections in the community, or both, she adds.

‘To produce the forecasts, we monitor in-hours and out-of-hours GP workload, NHS Direct call volumes, hospital admissions data and influenza surveillance as well as using data from our sophisticated weather forecasting models.'

Benefiting patients

Dr Laing-Morton says that the challenge has been to turn these forecasts into actions to benefit patients.

A wide range of methods have been used to contact patients in other parts of the country, with NHS Direct call centres and organisations such as Age Concern working alongside practices, pharmacists and community matrons.

Alerts have also been sent to at-risk patients by text message and email.

Some of the best results came from South Warwickshire where practice nurses called patients personally in response to the forecasts, reducing hospital admissions by up to 35 per cent.

‘Anyone working in a busy practice will testify that freeing up nurse time to call patients at the busiest times during winter can be difficult,' Dr Laing-Morton comments.

The Met Office teamed up with Medixine to help solve this problem by providing an interactive automated telephone service to contact people during high-risk periods.

Calls to patients

The practices piloting the system invite patients to sign up to the scheme by letter.

Practice staff enter patient details into the system and these are stored within NHS Net to ensure compliance with patient confidentiality guidelines.

When high-risk weather conditions are forecast, the Met Office will activate the system, and the patient will receive a phone call.

A pre-recorded human voice will give an explanatory introduction followed by two evidence-based questions.

The questions asked are: ‘Do you have enough medication for your COPD to last for the next two weeks?' and ‘Have your symptoms become worse than normal?'

Patients' responses will be logged on the system and the practices will be sent an email requesting that they log on to view the results.

The results are listed by patient and prioritised by severity of need. They can be followed up at the practice's discretion. The pilot will undergo full evaluation.

With the system now operational and over 300 patients have been recruited to use it, all that is needed is some cold weather to trigger it.

  • Cornwall GP Dr Jan du Plessis's practice in St Just In Penwith is one of the nine practices piloting the Met Office's COPD forecasting system. The practice has a list of 4,734 and it has 142 COPD patients. This 3 per cent prevalence is significantly above the national average.
  • ‘The GPs and nurses here at Cape Cornwall Surgery feel sure that health forecasting for patients with COPD is an extremely useful tool to help them cope with the problems associated with their illness,' he says. Dr du Plessis adds that taking part in the pilot scheme has helped the practice to improve the management of its COPD patients. It has also improved patient education and helped them to manage their illness better.
  • ‘This will also help reduce hospital admissions and enable patients to remain well and active within their own homes,' he says.

- Mr Sachon is a health forecaster at the Met Office and a project lead for the system

- For more details on forecasting for COPD see the Met Office website

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