This is a plain English summary of an original research article
People who need supervision take their medication for tuberculosis (TB) more reliably when using a smartphone to send video evidence instead of direct observations; for example, by attending a clinic appointment. Almost double the number of observations was completed in the video-supervised arm at six months than when people were directly observed.
Ensuring the effectiveness of treatment is central to worldwide TB control. Directly-observed treatment, in which a healthcare professional supervises a patient taking medication, is the established standard of care for those at risk of not completing the course for TB in the UK, but is not for everyone. This well-conducted NIHR-funded trial achieved good rates of supervision with video-observed treatment and showed potential for engaging populations at risk of not completing their therapy.
The study is likely to be too small to show if video-observed treatment reduced rates of TB but indicates it may have benefits for patients and clinicians. These results may support local authorities and public health practitioners in service development initiatives for TB and infection control, with the added bonus that they were cost-saving too.
Why was this study needed?
Globally, TB accounts for 1.6 million deaths and causes disease in 10 million people annually. In the UK, the incidence of TB is highest in the most deprived sections of the population often affecting people with histories of homelessness, imprisonment, and drug or alcohol problems.
Adherence to therapy is key in TB control. For effective outcomes and reduced antimicrobial resistance, TB is treated with a full course of antibiotics taken at regular intervals for several months. This treatment is sometimes prescribed as directly-observed therapy, a well-established treatment for supervision in community and outpatient settings. Observation is reserved for those at risk of not completing treatment because they have socially complex lives or mental illness.
Direct observation can be inconvenient and costly for both patients and service providers, and remote video-observation presents an alternative that is potentially more convenient. This study aimed to identify whether it can improve levels of adherence.
What did this study do?
This randomised controlled trial included 226 patients aged over 16 years with active TB from 22 clinics in England. They were allocated to receive either standard observation or video observation. Directly observations were undertaken three to five times per week at home, community or clinical settings. Those randomised to video observation by smartphone were trained to use an app and to send video recordings of each treatment dose taken.
Over half the participants in this well-conducted study were representative of homeless and other at-risk population groups. Smartphones, the app and data plans were provided by the study investigators for the duration of the study.
What did it find?
- 70% (78/112) of patients on video observed treatment achieved over 80% of their scheduled observations within the first two months of the study compared with 31% (35/114) on directly observed treatment: odds ratio 5.48 (95% confidence interval [CI] 3.10 to 9.68).
- In analysis restricted to those who initially engaged with therapy (at least for the first week), video observation was still more successful, with 77% (78/101) compared with 63% (35/56) of people in the direct observation group achieving over 80% of their scheduled observations.
- Over the six-month follow-up period, high observation rates were maintained with those on video observation but quickly decreased with those on direct observation. Scheduled observations were completed 77% of times in the video observed arm (95% CI 76 to 77) compared with 39% (95% CI 38 to 40) in the direct observation arm (p<0·0001).
- When factoring in the cost of providing a free mobile device and data plan to all study participants, video observation saved money compared with direct observation. The costs of providing direct observation over six months were estimated at £5,700 per patient for observations five times per week, and £3,420 for observations three times per week. For daily video observation over six months, costs were estimated at £1,645 per patient.
- The side effects of stomach pain, nausea or vomiting were reported frequently by 14% of those on video observation and 8% of those on direct observation.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
Current NICE guidelines recommend unsupervised treatment programmes for those likely to comply with therapy. The use of direct observation is recommended by both NICE and the World Health Organization for those less likely to comply. This includes individuals with socially complex lives or a mental illness.
There is a developing evidence-base for the use of video observation in improving adherence to treatment in TB. The World Health Organization has conditionally recommended it as an alternative to direct observation, but it is not yet included in UK guidelines.
What are the implications?
This study suggests video observation offers strong possibilities for achieving better outcomes in TB treatment compliance at a lower cost. It also appears to be more acceptable to patients. Following this study, video observation by smartphone was implemented in London services, the outcomes of which are awaited.
The benefits of the service are unlikely to be realised without the free provision of mobile devices and data plans, particularly to those from deprived or at-risk social situations. Indeed, 40% of the handsets were not returned on completion of treatment. Nevertheless, for the NHS, this intervention still resulted in cost savings compared with direct observation by a healthcare professional.
People with socially complex or disordered lives may still need additional encouragement to engage. Further data on the real-life implementation of this technology will help in interpreting the study outcomes.
Citation and Funding
Story A, Aldridge R, Smith C et al. Smartphone-enabled video-observed versus directly observed treatment for tuberculosis: a multicentre, analyst-blinded, randomised, controlled superiority trial. Lancet. 2019;393(10177):1216-24.
NICE. Tuberculosis. NG33. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2016.
WHO. Global tuberculosis report 2018: executive summary. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018.
WHO. Guidelines for treatment of drug-susceptible tuberculosis and patient care (2017 update). Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017.
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