Oct 17, 2008

Health - India;Healthcare goes places with Telemedicine

Priyanka Golikeri

TV screens, software help make up for skewed distribution of specialists across India

MUMBAI: Geeta Devi (name changed), a frail 40-year-old woman from Bankura, a remote town in West Midnapore district in West Bengal, has been suffering from severe stomach-ache and vomiting.

She’s been admitted to a healthcare centre and a specialist is examining her. Pretty routine, you’d say. There’s just one difference - the specialist is sitting in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, as far as 3,350 km from Bankura. This isn’t a scene in some sci-fi flick.

It’s just a new trend sweeping through the $40-billion healthcare segment in the country.
The specialist is able to scrutinise Geeta’s medical reports on his computer and evaluate her condition in real time through a videoconferencing facility at the healthcare centre in Bankura.

What’s connecting the 550-sq ft Bankura centre with the 8,000-sq ft tertiary care hospital in Chennai is a system called telemedicine. Simply put, telemedicine is an application in clinical medicine where medical information is exchanged over the telephone, the internet or other networks to not only offer medical consultation but also conduct remote medical procedures and examinations.

Telemedicine uses two components to reach out to patients in remote area. The hardware component consists of plasma screens, TV monitors, video conferencing equipment etc, and the software component of very small aperture terminal (VSAT) or broadband IP. The trend addresses the paucity of doctors, primarily specialists, in remote areas. K Ganapathy, co-founder of Telemedicine Society of India and president of Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation, feels the distribution of specialists across the country is lopsided. “For example, Chennai, with 8 million people, has 90 neurosurgeons, while north-eastern India, with 250 million people, has about 85.”

According to Planning Commission estimates, the country is currently facing a shortage of 6 lakh doctors. More than 750 million people in India have no direct access to secondary and tertiary medical care. “Telemedicine cuts down on the time, effort and money that patients have to put in to travel long distances to see specialists,” says Ganapathy.

He adds that a patient would end up paying just 5-10% of what he would have spent travelling to a hospital in a metro, paying for accommodation, and waiting for an appointment. Kumar Menon, physician coordinator, telemedicine, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS), says with telemedicine, expert consultation can be given through the audio/video system.

“Patient history and diagnosis in the form of text data, X-rays, ultrasound, ECG, blood pressure, heart sounds, etc can be seen and heard by a doctor sitting thousands of miles away,” adds Ganapathy.

Another area that telemedicine assists in is providing doctors with the opportunity to get training from experts and specialists anywhere in the country, says homeopath Mukesh Batra, who uses telemedicine in the field of homeopathy. “Telemedicine helps consulting doctors share their evaluations, seek a second opinion and obtain advice on critical cases from specialists,” says Batra.

Medical experts say that through telemedicine can cover almost all specialties, including key ones such as cardiology, neurology, rheumatology, psychiatry, etc. Apollo Hospitals, AIMS, and Dr Batra’s chain of homeopathy clinics are some leading players using telemedicine, which is used in about 450 healthcare centres across the country.

Other than the centres, telemedicine players also use mobile vans, which are equipped with laboratories to conduct X-rays, ultrasound, ECG etc. “These vans can go to remote areas that don’t have healthcare centres and connect patients with specialists in cities,” says AIMS’ Menon.

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