University of the Highlands and Islands: Digital health study aims to help pre-operation patients

The University of the Highlands and Islands and NHS Highland are planning to launch a new project to discover if a digital treatment can help patients on the waiting list for knee and hip operations. The study will see 100 patients from across the Highlands use Joint Academy, a digital treatment app developed by a Swedish digital health company, over a six-month period.

The app connects patients with a registered physiotherapist, provides information about chronic joint pain and encourages users to undertake tailored exercises for five minutes a day to help reduce pain and restore movement. A recent study by the University of Nottingham found that patients using the Joint Academy app reduced their pain by 41% after just six weeks, whereas the figure for those receiving face-to-face care was just 6%.

The initiative would be the first time Joint Academy has been trialled in Scotland. Researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands, led by Professor Trish Gorely, will aim to evaluate how likely patients are to sign up for the programme, if they stay engaged throughout and if they feel the treatment helped their condition.

Previous studies of Joint Academy found that some patients going through the treatment decide they no longer need surgery. Trials also showed reductions in post-operation recovery times.

Speaking about the project, Professor Gorely said: “We are excited about the opportunity to work with NHS Highland and Joint Academy to trial this innovative treatment. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that many operations have been delayed. This initiative could help to provide a possible solution for patients who are experiencing pain and mobility issues. We are grateful to Highlands and Islands Enterprise for introducing us to Joint Academy and are inspired by the difference the treatment could make to people across the Highlands and beyond.”

Asif Dewan, UK Managing Director at Joint Academy, said: “Making a significant dent in the hospital waiting lists will require public-private partnerships to a greater extent and we’re thrilled to now be able to offer our treatment to NHS patients. Every month, hundreds of patients change their mind about having surgery while they’re in our treatment. This is a win not just for the individual patient but for the healthcare system at large. Our hope is that this trial will help the participating patients and lead to more conversations with the NHS about how we can offer the treatment to everyone in the UK who needs it.”

Mr James Beastall, consultant orthopaedic surgeon with NHS Highland, said: “As a result of the pandemic, there are large numbers of people who are waiting patiently in Highland for surgery to reduce the pain they have from their arthritic joints. Some of these patients have now been waiting for two years. Even a short period of exercise every day can improve physical and mental wellbeing and we are very excited about the opportunity to work with Joint Academy in this fascinating project and hope that it can do something to ease suffering for some of our patients.”

UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said: “The pandemic has shown how much we can achieve with new technologies, especially in the field of health. This pioneering treatment has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of patients, improve waiting lists and help our NHS to deliver quality care.

“The UK Government is investing £9 million in life sciences innovation at the University of the Highlands and Islands as part of our £1.7 billion investment in levelling-up across Scotland.”

Joint Academy is already the most common way to treat chronic joint pain in Sweden and more than 70,000 patients have started the treatment. While there are specific criteria patients need to meet in order to take part, more than 70,000 patients have started the treatment with 85% of the patients saying they reduce their pain within just six weeks.

The eight-month study will be supported with funding given to the university through the Inverness and Highlands City Region Deal. The university was awarded £9m from the UK Government for life sciences projects. The Deal is a joint £315m initiative supported by both the UK and Scottish governments and managed by the Highland Council.

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