Telemedicine breaks down international barriers

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

Telemedicine has long been considered an ideal means of connecting healthcare providers with people in remote parts of the country. Now a growing number of providers are using the technology to push their expertise across the globe.

Pittsburgh-based UPMC, for instance, recently announced two deals to enable video access to its physicians in Afghanistan and India. That's on top of the health network's ongoing telemedicine partnerships in China, Kazakhstan, Italy, Colombia, Singapore, Mexico and Ireland, and ongoing conversations with Germany, Brazil and Israel, among other countries.

“This is a world without boundaries, and that's what we're seeing,” said Andrew Watson, MD, chief medical information officer for UPMC's International and Commercial Services Division, in a recent Pittsburgh Tribune Review story on UPMC's Afghanistan project. “The advent of telemedicine in a world without boundaries is no different than using Facebook or Skype around the world. We're just seeing this technology impact medicine.”

While several telemedicine vendors – such as Vidyo, Polycom, Philips, Cisco, and AMD Global Telemedicine – have championed video-conferencing as a means of connecting individual specialists with patients in other countries, health networks have been slow to catch on. That's changing, however, as corporate officials see the value in extending the brand and establishing partnerships with health systems in other parts of the world.

UPMC's agreement with Onsite Occupational Health and Safety, an Indiana-based provider of medical support services to defense, energy, manufacturing and other industries around the world, will provide consults in dermatology, infectious diseases, neurology and orthopedics to doctors in Afghanistan, with other service lines being added later. Onsite OHS officials say they may expand this partnership to include clients in southeast Asia and possibly several American states.

“As one of the nation’s top 10 medical centers and a global leader in the use of telemedicine, UPMC will help us to bring world-class care to patients, regardless of time or distance,” said Kyle G. Johnson, the company's president and chief executive officer, in a press release. “Under the first agreement of its kind for Onsite OHS, these ‘virtual’ consultations will be a valuable addition to the care that we offer to our patients all over the world.” 

“With its focus on excellence in patient care and unparalleled responsiveness to patients and clients, Onsite OHS shares some of the same core values that drive the world-class physicians of UPMC,” Watson said in the release. “This collaboration will build on our extensive telemedicine efforts, part of UPMC Global Care, which provides patients worldwide with a variety of convenient ways to access our highly specialized care.”

Another agreement, with TeleChikitsa Ventures of Bangalore, India, will soon have UPMC doctors specializing in oncology, pulmonology and colorectal surgery available to consult with physicians in India within 48 hours.

UPMC is one of more than 200 academic medical centers in the country to offer video-based consulting to other parts of the world, according to the American Telemedicine Association. The ATA has long advocated for the use of telemedicine to deliver specialized care to other countries – a point illustrated several years ago when then-ATA President Karen Rheuban, a Virginia-based pediatric cardiologist, used the technology to perform life-saving surgery on an orphan in China.

Another example can be found at the Miami Children's Hospital, which uses its Global Telehealth Command Center to provide video consults by pediatric specialists to several locations in the Caribbean.

Greg Billings, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Telehealth and e-Health Law, told the Tribune Review that UPMC is just the latest to join a fast-growing trend of providing access to healthcare in areas of the globe that might not have easy access to those resources.

“What you're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. More and more international delivery of medicine and medical care is going to take place with countries that need additional medical resources,” he said.