Telehealth in the UK could generate £1 billion  of revenues per year according to comments made by Telefonica Digital executives during an analyst and media event in London.

The remote monitoring of patients with chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes is still at an early stage in the UK and Spain, which are the two markets where Telefonica is pinning their hopes that governments will invest in scaling up services.

The operator currently only has hundreds of patients hooked up to remote monitoring but hopes that number will grow significantly. It points to the endorsement of the UK government, which late last year unveiled its 3 Million Lives programme. The Department of Health says there are three million patients with chronic conditions who could use telehealth services. The operator's £1 billion revenue estimate is based on this three-million figure. A market of this size could be five years away, it adds.

"i am not going to be a fool and say this will happen overnight," Jose Perdomo, Telefonica Digital's director of ehealth, said at the event. And the operator's business model for remote monitoring faces some obstacles. For example, the Department of Health will provide no new funds for deploying telehealth, according to a story in Pulse magazine. Speaking earlier this week Stephen Johnson, deputy director and head of long term conditions at the Department of Health, said clinical commission groups, or CCGs, will have to use existing funds to deploy technology in their local areas.

Also this week a new study by the Nuffield Trust described the possible cost savings for the NHS from a large scale deployment of telehealth as being “modest” although it did point to significant health benefits from the technology. Cost saving is a key factor that mobile operators highlight in their debate with government in favour of remote monitoring.

But Telefonica argues existing telehealth deployments in the UK tend to use older, fixed broadband systems and its services based on mobile phone technology are more attractive.

Telefonica Digital is not alone in pursuing the remote monitoring market in the UK. Rivals include medical device vendors such as GE and Philips as well as BT and other mobile operators.

In its presentation Telefonica Digital pointed to the potential per-patient revenues from monitoring patients with chronic diseases. It said the highest charge per month is EUR100-200 for monitoring a patient with the most serious chronic conditions. A charge of EUR 30-50 per month could apply to the next cateogory and less than EUR1 per month for those with less serious conditions, the operator said. Plus the set-up costs are small compared to the potential revenues, argued Perdomo at the event.

This charge would be levied on the payer in the case of the UK, meaning local doctors or GPs. In other countries, depending on the health system, it could be an insurance company or an individual.

Overall Telefonica Digital is targeting EUR300-600 million in revenue from ehealth by 2015. This includes Latin America as well as European markets such as the UK and Spain.