Today is World COPD Day! This piece, written by our Health and Wellbeing expert, Adrian Smith, discusses the disease and how satellite applications are changing the landscape through connectivity and data on pollution.

A combination of NHS resource challenges and the arrival of new innovative technologies herald a whole new approach to treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is a respiratory condition affecting millions of people worldwide. It causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways and damages the air sacs in the lungs resulting in severe breathing difficulties.  The World Health Organisation 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study reports a prevalence of 251 million cases of COPD globally in the preceding year. It is estimated that over 3 million deaths are caused by the disease every year (around 5% of all deaths globally) and the number is growing every year.

In the UK, according to British Lung Foundation statistics, an estimated 1.2 million people are living with diagnosed COPD – this makes COPD the second most common lung disease in the UK, after asthma. Again, all the research suggests prevalence is growing – for example up 9% in only a four year period between 2008 and 2012. COPD is currently the 5th largest cause of death in the UK.

COPD is caused by prolonged exposure to irritating particles and gases with the worst offender being cigarette smoke, but diesel fuel particles and a range of other forms of air pollution are also major causal factors. There is currently no cure for COPD but treatment can help slow the progression of the condition, control the symptoms and limit complications. Minimising continued exposure and a programme of exercise and education are the main treatment interventions.

Rather than rely on repeated contact with GPs, nurses and specialist clinicians many COPD patients can obtain the advice, guidance and support they need through a smartphone or other device. This telehealth approach is not an inferior alternative to face-to-face contact – not only do an increasing proportion of patients prefer it but the instant access to support and advice it provides often simply isn’t possible through traditional routes.

Several telehealth solutions exist that are proven to help COPD sufferers and to give them the confidence to manage the disease at home while providing better information to  clinicians to help  patients avoid admission to hospital (with a consequent easing of pressure on NHS resources). One example of these services is CliniTouch from Spirit Digital, which monitors a patient’s health at pre-determined intervals and shares results with remote clinicians. It enables triage based on a set of symptom scores whilst encouraging self-management at home and includes a suite of NHS approved educational resources covering topics such as quitting smoking, exercise and dealing  with breathlessness.

How do space and satellite technologies play into this picture? In two important and compelling ways. Firstly, if patients are to use telehealth solutions in their home and community they need information to be passed to clinicians regularly and reliably. This demands reliable connectivity and often, particularly in remote rural areas, satellite communication channels are the only option.

The second major area is evolving rapidly and relies on the comprehensive earth observation data that satellites can provide. COPD patients need to exercise but they also need to minimise their exposure to poor quality air. Satellites can comprehensively monitor the levels of a full range of air pollutants and, when combined with ground-based sensor and weather data, this information can be integrated into telehealth solutions. Patients and their carers are much better informed about when and where exercise is possible and can be alerted to possible situations which might exacerbate their condition. Sophisticated modelling enables accurate forecasts of future conditions not simply real-time data.

Telehealth solutions are fundamentally changing healthcare, preventing illness and allowing self-management in the home and community with satellite applications are playing a critical role.