Over 100 GP practices in the North West of England will be offering patients heart check-ups over the phone during the Christmas holiday period.

People living in Greater Manchester who experience cardiac symptoms over the holiday season will be able to go along to their local practice or walk-in centre and be tested on the spot with an ECG carried out and results sent by phone to a cardiac centre.

The service is being offered by NHS North West, funded by four PCTs and delivered by telemedicine specialist Broomwell HealthWatch. They say a five-minute heart test in local GP surgeries, walk-in and medical centres will enable earlier diagnosis of heart incidents, potentially saving many lives reducing the pressure on overstretched hospitals during the festive period.

According to the British Heart Foundation, Christmas and New Year break is the peak time for heart attacks and cardiac problems, but people are often reluctant to disrupt their festive plans and can initially pass off cardiac symptoms, including chest pains, as indigestion.

The top reasons for the increase in cardiac symptoms over Christmas include:

• People forgetting to take their medications because they are travelling, or running out when away from home

• Excess alcohol makes the heart work harder to get blood to peripheral arteries.

• "Holiday heart syndrome," where alcohol irritates the heart muscle and triggers an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation.

• Cold weather can constrict blood vessels, and the winter rise in respiratory diseases further stresses the heart

Joe Rafferty, NHS North West director of commissioning and strategy said: “Heart incidents are more common during the holiday season, but people may put off getting a medical diagnosis because they worry about travelling to hospitals and having to wait for tests and results.”

Rafferty said by offering telemedicine ECG tests in local surgeries and health centres such worries and reluctance to visit hospital A&E departments can be overcome, helping to identify those people that urgently need cardiac care – and reassure those that don’t. “As well as helping save lives, the tests reduce the burden of cardiac ‘false alarms’ on hospitals. We are pleased to be pioneering the widespread use of this innovative technology within our region.”

A six-month pilot of Broomwell’s service by NHS North West showed the potential to save 90,000 A&E visits, 45,000 hospital admissions and hundreds of lives each year in England. NHS savings by cutting unnecessary hospital admissions and A&E visits for symptoms of chest pain were £46m per year.

Joshua Rowe, CEO of Broomwell HealthWatch said: “This service is great for patients because of its convenience and speed, and great for the NHS because it cuts costs and frees up resources. This is especially important during the holiday season, when hospital and A&E admissions can increase.”

The award-winning telemedicine ECG technology from Broomwell HealthWatch provides an accurate heart check-up by telephone in minutes. It is already in use at over 100 surgeries and health centres in Greater Manchester, with more surgeries planning to adopt the technology in 2008. 

Based on the high-quality ECG trace, Broomwell staff give an immediate verbal interpretation by phone so that action can be taken quickly, if needed. A full written ECG report is also sent to the GP surgery by email or fax for inclusion in the patient record.

In a 2007 pilot in the NHS, Broomwell says 82% of patients having the ECG test did not need to go to hospital (either A&E or outpatients) following the test. This also gives rapid reassurance for those who are merely suffering from seasonal overindulgence. The company says that latest data from the trials in Greater Manchester & Cheshire show that without the service, 57% of those with chest pain symptoms could have been referred to hospital.

Broomwell Healthwatch was established in 2004 to provide telemedicine monitoring services to GPs, walk-in centres, community hospitals and private individuals.