Telemedicine-a cross-fertilisation of medicine & telecommunication
OVER THE past couple of decades, advancements in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have brought a revolution in the life of common people. More and more people have been able to avoid physically going into work and have preferred the telecommuting from their personal or home computer. ICT strongly influences the way we work and is creating opportunities and new demands for a range of different approaches to healthcare practices in medical field too. Healthcare has always been at the cutting edge of technology in general. Medical field has introduced a cue from this growing trend by combining telecommunication technology and medicine to create telemedicine and tele-healthcare. Simply we can call it as a cross-fertilization of medicine and telecommunication.
Telemedicine is actually the delivery of healthcare services, where distance is a critical factor, 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 the continuing education of healthcare providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities. Telemedicine system has an immense potential to improve life of patients and empower them, supports doctors and physicians in their work, and improves quality of healthcare and patient safety.
There are two major types of technologies used in telemedicine applications. The first one is called “store and forward” which is being used for transferring digital images from one location to another. By the help of this technology a healthcare professional takes a picture of a subject or an area of concern with a digital camera, “store” it and then “forward” it by a computer to another computer at a different region. This type of technology is utilized for non-emergent situations, when theres time for an appointment (diagnosis or consultation) to be made, usually within 24 to 48 hours, with the findings then sent back. The most familiar use of store and forward technology is in teleradiology, where x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs reports can be sent with the same facility, between two places in a same city, or from one location to another location anywhere in the world. Telepathology is also another common use of this type of technology, where images of pathology slides are sent from one location to another for diagnostic and consultation purposes. Additionally, dermatology is also one main era that drastically taking benefits from the store and forward technology, by sending digital images of different skin conditions to a dermatologist for diagnosis.
The second most widely-used technology in telemedicine is two-way, interactive television (IATV). It is mainly used in coordinate consultations when patients, along with their healthcare provider (a doctor or a nurse practitioner) and a telemedicine coordinator (or a combination of the three), gather at one site (the originating site), and a specialist is at another site (the referral site) which is usually at large, metropolitan medical centre. Videoconferencing equipments are placed at both locations which allow consultation to take place in real-time consultation. The videoconferencing equipment and robotic technology have initiated a remarkable progress in this field. They have assisted doctors offices and medical facilities as closer to one another as computer screen.
Almost all areas of medicine including psychiatry, internal medicine, rehabilitation, cardiology, pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology and neurology have been able to benefit from videoconferencing. Also, several different peripheral devices like otoscopes (which help doctors look inside the ear) and stethoscopes (which enable a doctor to listen to a persons heartbeat) can be attached to computers, aiding with an interactive examination. Technologies that offer healthcare videoconferencing as a substrate are still developing. It will be feasible to send large amounts of clinical multimedia data (compressed audio and video images) on high speed lines such as broadband technologies through the internet in near future.
Telemedicine is certainly enabling ordinary doctors to perform extra-ordinary tasks. Today a number of healthcare professionals are becoming more creative with the technology that is available to
them in order to accomplish telemedicine goals. For example, the use of the web to transfer clinical information and data is becoming more prevalent, and the use of wireless technology is also being used to provide ambulances with mobile telemedicine services of all kinds. The advantages of telemedicine include enabling direct links between the caregivers and/or care receivers thereby enabling effective medical care especially to rural populations, saving time and money for caregivers and faster diagnosis and treatment for care receivers.
In todays vibrant world, although a number of advances are made in the medical field. The benefits are still accessible to the privileged few residing mainly in the urban areas. The information and communication technology (ICT) revolution is having dramatic effects on practices within the healthcare practices and on the delivery of health services. This is changing rapidly as the healthcare industry started realizing the full potential of these technologies. With the advent of ICT, particularly the medical field combined with information technology, we have means to extend the benefits from the advanced medical sciences even to the remote and inaccessible areas. Telemedicine, telehealth, and e-health will persist to combine the best of medicine, technology, and telecommunications, which will help in making our lives healthier and safer. The future applications of ICT in telemedicine and health care will surely yield unexpected results. Indeed, the decisive success of telemedicine/tele-health depends on how well the health care system exploits the capabilities of advanced ICT.
The writer is B.E. (Biomedical Engineering) at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, Jamshoro,Sindh, Pakistan.