A hospital team which helped bring pioneering video appointments to North Devon has won a national award for their work.

The rheumatology team at Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust (NDHT) won the Best Practice Award from the British Society for Rheumatology in partnership with charity Versus Arthritis for the innovative project.

The project was started last year by the rheumatology team at the hospital to help reduce travel times and improve convenience for arthritis patients.

It allows patients to be at home and use their own device to hold secure and confidential appointments with the team at North Devon District Hospital (NDDH).

The technology has now proved to be vital during the coronavirus pandemic. It has been implemented across other services at NDDH to enable patients to adhere to government guidance to stay at home while still accessing care and support.

The project was led by rheumatology consultant Dr Stuart Kyle, who said: “When we started this project, we wanted to introduce a virtual appointment option to reduce travel time and costs for our patients.

“As the most remote acute hospital in England, significant travelling distances meant that a 15-minute appointment sometimes required a patient to have half a day away from work. Reducing the need to travel makes a huge difference to our patients.

“Looking at where we are now, we feel incredibly grateful to have started work on this when we did. During the COVID-19 pandemic we’re reducing face-to-face contact as much as possible, and our team have been able to use this technology to continue to see some patients.

“The award win is a wonderful added bonus to a piece of work we are very proud of. It’s great that our small rheumatology department has been recognised nationally for doing something innovative that has patients’ best interests at heart.”

The rheumatology team at NDHT, pictured in January 2020. Picture: NDHTThe rheumatology team at NDHT, pictured in January 2020. Picture: NDHT

Patients can connect to the video appointment software using an app or internet browser on their own PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone, and there is a virtual waiting room where the clinician can communicate with the patient. During the appointment, blood test results, scans or other images can also be shared securely.

During April, 30 teams within NDHT have held more than 400 video appointments, totalling more than 100 hours. This is expected to increase significantly, with another 20 teams being set up to hold video appointments over the next couple of weeks.

Some of the other teams using video appointments include maternity, which is using it as a video helpline for new mums. The software is also helping clinicians work together across the South West. For example, video consultations are being used by the NDHT’s paediatric team for clinical discussions with specialists from Bristol and Exeter.

Suzanne Tracey, chief executive of NDHT, said: “In an extraordinarily short space of time we have introduced a modern, convenient and reliable means of caring for our patients, some of whom are being shielded or who are sticking to the government guidance to stay at home.

“The rheumatology team’s successful trial meant that it was so much easier to roll this out to other teams across the Trust. Nevertheless it has still required a huge effort from our staff to get 30 of our teams up and running with video appointments, and I’d like to say thank you for your hard work.”

Ali Rivett, chief executive of the British Society for Rheumatology, said: “Given the current Covid-19 pandemic this is a very timely innovation.

“This is an exciting, emerging project which provides a great example of how a service has adapted to meet the needs of its local population. The feedback from patients has been very positive and there is considerable potential to implement this initiative more widely.”