NHS Highland claim new technology which boosts mobile phone and Wi-Fi signals in remote and rural locations may prove to be a gamechanger for local communities.

If the trials of a system called Omni-hub prove successful, the hoped-for communication improvements could lead to the introduction of quicker, more responsive and sustainable health care services.

And, as an added bonus, local communities may be able to tap into this improved connectivity for their own benefit.

Since August, the health board has been putting the Omni-hub system through its paces to see if it can provide secure, resilient, high quality and cost-effective communication in areas considered to have low or in some cases non-existent coverage.

A system has been installed at the Armadale medical practice in Sutherland where cellular coverage for the surrounding area met this criteria.

And further tests are planned to use a portable backpack version of Omni-hub in the area that can be used by GPs and associated health practitioners in the field – especially in the out of hours period where practitioners are working alone.

Evan Beswick, NHS Highland’s out-of-hours project manager, said that should the tests prove viable, the system may point to a solution for areas around Highland where connectivity has proved a problem.

He said: “If successful, Omni-hub will be an enabling element to help implement health and social care models that have made improvements elsewhere. An added bonus is that Omni-hub could help boost much needed Wi-Fi links - up to 15 kilometres - that the communities themselves could tap into.”

Made by Tactical Wireless Ltd, Omni-hub incorporates an antenna ‘pod’ – that has a wide range of multiple input-multiple output (MIMO) antennas and includes an integrated GPS system – with sophisticated bonded algorithms software. This allows Omni-hub to scavenge and capture the best cellular and satellite signals simultaneously from any of the network sim cards installed in the system.

The use of Omni-hub allows for much more that just voice and text messages. Streams of data can be linked up to multi devices such as laptops, mobiles and tablets, so enabling access to clinical systems. 

Evan said: “It’s part of a wider plan to strengthen the out-of-hours primary care hub that co-ordinates urgent emergency care across Highland region.”

The trials are funded by Scottish Government and are being closely watched by other health boards such as NHS Grampian, NHS Orkney, NHS Shetland and NHS Western Isles, which experience similar communication problems.

“Omni-hub has the ability to transmit video, in real time, to an expert at another location. We already have different health professionals, like advanced nursing practitioners and advanced paramedics working as part of an integrated team. Improved connectivity means we can enhance the links they have to medical experts so they can get some decision-making support.

“The big change in out-of-hours primary care has been beginning to move from a doctor-only model to integrated team models and all our work getting the connectivity improvements is to support that.”

The board has already successfully introduced sustainable high-quality health care using rural integrated support team models. Omni-hub will enable similar models to be used elsewhere across the Highland region.

Evan said: “In the Small Isles - Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna - the approach has very much been the community working together with us to achieve positive outcomes. Locally recruited and trained health and social care support workers are part of an integrated team with three visiting GPs supporting them.

“Community resilience has a big part to play in these rural health support models. What we have seen is that healthy communities take responsibility for their own treatment. Here, they have three doctors on rotation, and on the islands there are four health and social care health workers who have been fully trained to deliver basic care in combination with the doctors.”