Community nurses in the small town of Alston, Cumbria will be able to visit housebound patients and keep track of their treatments after they were given broadband-enabled laptops as part of a Department of Health social enterprise pathfinder project.

Alston Healthcare, was one of the DH’s 26 social enterprise pathfinder projects set up last year, given funds to reinvest into the community, or into service developments over a four-year period.

The Cumbrian based company aims to provide community health services, including e-health services, across a rural area, with particular focus on older people.

In 2006/07, Alston Healthcare received £15,500 revenue and £5,000 capital from the Social Enterprise Unit and set about providing a broadband infrastructure that staff from the local primary care trust and hospital could use to visit the sick and elderly at home.

Daniel Heery, project manager for Alston Healthcare, told EHI Primary Care: “The aim of our service is to bring e-health to the people who most need it. Cumbria is a large county, but there isn’t a large amount of health services in close proximity to where many people live. It really is a rural part of the country where public services are sparse.”

Alston Healthcare based their service offering on a similar system they had seen in Sweden.

As the nearest Accident and Emergency and out-of-hours centre is located in Carlisle, and there are too few GPs in the area to handle large amounts of home visits, the company realised that offering nurses broadband would help them be better equipped to look after their patients.

Heery said: “We received DH funding in January 2007 and set about creating an action plan whereby we find ways of arranging for patients with long term conditions and also elderly housebound patients to be visited by fully equipped community nurses and get all the help they can get.

“As nurses often have a lot on and cannot always see the same patient, we thought it would be a useful investment to offer them broadband-enabled laptops from which they can get web access to records and ensure that the patient is getting the best treatment possible.”

Nurses were first given the new laptops in July and Heery says that early indications show that it has helped to half unnecessary patient admissions and decreased the need for GPs to make home visits by around a third.

Heery said that much of the success has been down to good clinical engagement from community nurses and GPs for the project to go ahead.

In the remaining three years, Alston Healthcare wants to expand the project to make using the web for health the norm in the town, and possibly the county. They also want to work closely with the National Programme for IT to ensure all residents of the small town get the healthcare they require on time.

Heery said: “We want to be able to make e-health and the use of the internet a key priority for the people of Alston whilst the DH allows us to. We are looking at creating new video links between clinicians and patients, so that you can seek treatment from your front room when a long drive to Carlisle seems impossible.

“We are also looking to make Choose and Book available for residents to be able to use from their homes, so that they still have the option to exercise choice, but can do it themselves after referral, from the comfort of their homes. Telecare is also something which we are looking to introduce.”