Telemonitoring for patients with COPD

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f5932 (Published 17 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5932
  1. Rachel Jordan, senior lecturer,
  2. Peymane Adab, professor,
  3. Kate Jolly, professor
  1. 1School of Health and Population Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
  1. r.e.jordan{at}bham.ac.uk

Adds little to well supported self management

Telemonitoring has been promoted as a potential solution to the management of rising numbers of patients worldwide with long term health problems. Although there is some evidence that such interventions empower patients to change behaviour, their effect on clinical outcomes is not clear.1 In a linked paper (doi:10.1136/bmj.f6070), Pinnock and colleagues report the results of their telemonitoring trial in 256 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) admitted to hospital in the previous year with an exacerbation.2

COPD is one of the most common long term conditions and is expensive because exacerbations often lead to hospital admission. Patients are encouraged to self manage their disease by recognising exacerbations and self medicating to limit the impact of an exacerbation (action planning), thus avoiding admission. Cochrane systematic reviews conclude that education on self management is associated with a reduced risk of hospital admission,3 although action plans with limited education have no effect.4

Another approach to timely management of exacerbations is the telemonitoring of patients’ symptoms by a remote clinical team, although evidence for the effectiveness of this approach is conflicting. Systematic reviews highlight the heterogeneity of interventions and the difficulty in isolating the telemonitoring package from the remaining elements of the service.5 6 In Pinnock and colleagues’ trial in Lothian,2 patients were randomised to the telemonitoring or conventional self monitoring group. All patients received self management advice—education on self management of exacerbations reinforced with the British Lung Foundation booklet, a written management plan, and an emergency supply of antibiotics and steroids, integrated within the standard clinical care service for their region.

The novelty of this trial is the addition in the intervention arm of telemonitoring alone to background self management and clinical support. In contrast to previous trials, this allowed the effects of telemonitoring to be separated from the effects of existing services. The package consisted of touch screen operated daily questionnaires about symptoms and drug use, with an instrument to measure oxygen saturation. Data were transmitted daily by an internet connection to the clinical monitoring team, which contacted patients whose score reached a validated threshold. Clinicians responded by advising rescue drugs, a home visit, admission to hospital, or further review. Eighty five per cent (109/128) of patients randomised to the intervention received the equipment and completed the training, which was impressive given the inevitable logistical difficulties with installation.

After 12 months, no difference was seen in hospital admissions for COPD between the two groups (hazard ratio 0.98, 95% confidence interval 0.66 to 1.44). Furthermore, no differences were seen in health related quality of life, anxiety or depression, self efficacy, knowledge, or adherence to drugs. This lack of effect confirms the results of two similar pilot studies in patients with COPD,7 8 as well as recent trials of telemonitoring in heart failure.9 10

So why didn’t it work? Usually self recording and feedback can help change behaviour. But here the clinicians made the decisions. Did the patients, having passed on their information, also pass on the responsibility for managing exacerbations?

There were large numbers of contacts through the alert system (24/person/year). Although it is not clear how many of these were “false alarms,” only 1.1 hospital visits per person were instigated. This low threshold should have been sensitive enough to help patients who truly needed advice. Contacts not related to alerts were also higher in the intervention arm, suggesting that routine support in this group may have been more proactive.

Background levels of self management support and care seemed relatively high for at least two of the regions—a dedicated respiratory physiotherapy service in the City of Edinburgh and a weekday specialist nurse service for long term conditions in Midlothian. This may not have allowed for the monitoring system to show any additional benefit. Education about self management was optimised in both arms before randomisation; if this had been more rigorous than usual care, it may have been partly responsible for reducing admissions overall. However, without a true usual care group this is not clear. Notably, the rate of exacerbations in the control arm (12.8/patient/year) was more than four times the expected level.11 This suggests that all patients were receiving a high level of proactive care or self managing well, or that the questionnaires were unusually sensitive (or a combination of both).

Perhaps a more targeted approach should be taken, focusing on “poor self managers,” for example. However there were no data to describe how well different types of patient adhered to daily telemonitoring and limited evidence from subgroup analyses of individuals who might respond better. Perhaps counterintuitively, patients with milder disease and those with higher depression scores seemed to have higher admission rates with telemonitoring. Telemonitoring may also have picked up milder exacerbations not usually reported by patients.

What are the implications for telemonitoring and self management in COPD? This trial suggests that the addition of telemonitoring to the management of high risk patients, over and above the backdrop of self management education and a good clinical service, is costly and ineffective. Similar results have been found in telemonitoring trials with high level usual care.7 8 9 10 The alert system creates a high workload, is expensive, and may result in a large number of false positive alerts and overtreatment. These were identified as concerns in the piloting phase,12 and were borne out by the trial.

It is widely held that the most effective components of self management support services for COPD are still to be identified, and this trial adds to the body of literature by testing the introduction of intensively monitored symptoms in real time. Furthermore, perhaps we should be putting more emphasis on a more “upstream” approach for preventing exacerbations. Exacerbations are usually caused by viruses, and interventions that incorporate simple public health approaches for infection control may be worth pursuing.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5932


  • Research, doi:10.1136/bmj.f6070
  • Competing interests: We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: None.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.