Building an interconnected communications hub

While video conferencing and collaboration technology has already come of age, South Africa’s medical industry is still grappling with connectivity issues.

August 12, 2013

By Alain Schram, Chief Operating Officer at Kathea

While video conferencing and collaboration technology has already come of age, South Africa’s medical industry is still grappling with connectivity issues to provide effective services to patients remotely. Telemedicine, which can be broadly defined as medical information, be it using instrumentation, images or video-conferencing, that’s transferred using dedicated networks to assist in the remote diagnoses of medical patients.

Today, skills in public health institutions to deal with medical emergencies are seriously lacking. Telemedicine can assist greatly to address these challenges and can incur massive cost savings to the state, whilst providing quality primary healthcare to patients.

Currently, South Africa has no formulated e-health policy, plan or strategy, yet great efforts have already been made by government to drive private-public partnerships for the advancement of telemedicine.

Whilst having limited funds, a lack of resources and dispersed geographies, institutions such as the Department of Health and State Information Technology Agency (SITA), have been engaging with private clinics and hospitals to educate doctors and uplift the capabilities of public medical institutions. Often this has not just involved telemedicine, but specialists from major cities doing complex procedures in secondary towns thereby coaching doctors and graduates in the process.

However, more needs to be done. Private clinics, through their Corporate Social Investment (CSI) efforts, should assist public health institutions not just with technology, but through the assistance of medical professionals and the way technology can be harnessed for medical education advancement. Most primary public hospitals and clinics require major upgrades of their telecommunications infrastructures and diagnostic capabilities to provide a better quality of care to patients, but the benefits are enormous.

Currently, these efforts are hampered by the fact that many private medical institutions are on different landline and mobile networks and to counter this, projects have been initiated to create an ‘inter-connect’ networking core, connecting all communications operators to a high-quality, high bandwidth network service. Working in consultation with local network providers, the networking hub aims to connect medical institutions’ video-conferencing investments and allows secondary town’s access to world-class private medical professionals for specific assessments.

Another area where telemedicine can greatly assist includes eLearning. Travel is often the biggest obstacle where costs and travel time are inhibiting factors. Using video-conferencing and collaboration, it is a far simpler, cost-effective means of providing training, especially to geographically dispersed locations and further delivers the benefit of ‘one to many’ tutoring. Additionally, complex operations can be recorded remotely with video-conferencing technology and viewed by doctors and students through on-demand video services.

Over and above video-conferencing capabilities, telemedicine technologies have advanced dramatically in recent years to remotely diagnose complex conditions via medical instruments. Digital medical devices can help doctors gather vitals, monitor progress, view ultrasounds, hear heart and lung sounds and capture images of skin, ears, eyes and other areas.

Devices such as stethoscopes are able to transmit, heart, breath and bowel sounds in real time, which can be used independently or in conjunction with video-conferencing. Using high quality headphones, a specialist on the receiving side of the call is able to adjust the frequency filter to ensure the correct range is emphasised and can diagnose and record transmissions.

Other innovative tools are telemedicine carts and ruggedised briefcases which house a selection of medical peripherals and a powerful laptop computer. The station is designed for offices and areas that are short on space yet need the ability to present a patient to and share images and data with a remote provider.

By implementing telemedicine, the technology literally extends a physician or specialist to the people, bringing quality healthcare that would typically not be available to patients. Additionally, it affords retiring physicians in the practice the opportunity to provide services in an advisory role. In light of this, the aim is to create a world-class network interconnectivity hub for video services to make telemedicine a reality in South Africa for the advancement of education and specialist medical diagnosis.