The world of Information and Communication Technologies have made medical care more convenient and easily accessible. It has revolutionised the way healthcare is available to the layman. Telemedicine is a word coined back in 1970s, meaning, ‘Healing at a distance’3. Telemedicine has made it possible to provide high-quality healthcare facilities to rural and remote areas where it is hard to find good medical services due to lack of skilled and competent physicians and an established medical set up. It has also increased the prospects of distant medical education and imparting specialist training1.
According to World Health Organisation, telemedicine is defined as, “The delivery of healthcare services, where distance is a critical factor, by all healthcare professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for continuing education of healthcare providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities”1.
When two physicians discuss a medical problem of a patient or seek advice from a specialist, the outcome is far more beneficial for the patient. With the help of IT based systems, broadband telecommunications media provided by satellite and terrestrial network, telemedicine makes this possible even in the absence of another physician in the close vicinity. Medical records such as diagnostic tests, radiological reports, patient’s videos or images can be transmitted in real time to another physician or medical set up miles away from where the patient lives.
Also called as Real-time telemedicine. This involves live video or audio communication by the health provider or general physician with the specialist in presence of the patient. The patient can be examined by the physician in front of the specialist during the video conference and a live consultation can be carried out2.
Also called as Store and forward telemedicine. The health care giver or physician obtains all the medical details, images, test reports, examination findings etc. of the patient and stores them. This data is then emailed to the specialist or saved on the server of the software for assessment by the specialist. At a time suitable to the specialist, he views all the data and replies back with his opinion on the diagnosis and further tests and treatment2.
These two technology types can be applicable to different fields of telemedicine like teledermatology, telepathology, teleradiology, telesurgery etc3.
Advantages of Telemedicine
- It helps to provide expert advice from specialists across long distances crossing the geographical barriers. This can improve the quality of healthcare available to patients across the globe.
- Telemedicine makes distance education more easily accessible to medical practitioners and healthcare facilitators. They can receive education from the specialists in the field. Physicians can also attend continuing medical education (CME) courses from their clinic.
- Telemedicine increases the scope of providing home health care for the aged patients or patients who are unable to travel to the hospitals. It facilitates experts in the field to offer their services at lesser costs and reach a larger group of patients. Post-operative care can also be provided in the comfort of the patient’s home with regular monitoring using telemedicine2.
- With telemedicine healthcare is made more affordable. It saves unnecessary transfer of patients from home to hospital or from hospital to hospital. This also helps save the physicians travel time; thus he can attend to more number of patients.
In a study done by specialists of University of California, it was concluded that a paediatric telemedicine program can increase referrals and hospital revenues. It not only benefits the patient, but also boosts the hospital’s market share4.
In 2001, Indian Space Research Organisation started a satellite based Telemedicine network under GRAMSAT (rural satellite) program which at present includes 315 hospitals, 271 remore/rural district hospitals/health centers connected to 44 superspecialty hospitals located in major cities. It also includes 10 mobile teleophthalmology sections.
ISRO plans to launch HEALTHSAT, a satellite committed only for healthcare. ONCONET Kerala has been a successful project. Hence, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare intends to initiate OncoNET India project aiming to connect 27 Regional Cancer Centers with 100 Peripheral Cancer Centers to facilitate National Cancer Control Program.
The Government of India and the Health Ministry is planning various other projects to create awareness about telemedicine in the country. Since, India is known for its expertise in the field of medicine and is growing fast in the field of IT; it has the potential to emerge as a leader in Telemedicine.
Contributed by Dr. Rachita Narsaria, MD
- The Financial Impact of a Pediatric Telemedicine Program: A Children’s Hospital’s Perspective; Madan Dharmar, Candace K. Sadorra, Paul Leigh, Nikki H. Yang, Thomas S. Nesbitt, and James P. Marcin. Telemedicine and e-Health. July 2013, 19(7): 502-508. doi:10.1089/tmj.2012.0266.