On a rare occasion you might find a pediatrician, neurologist, dermatologist and emergency medicine physician meeting to provide in-suite case consultations. Rarer still is this assemblage of highly skill healthcare professionals working together to diagnose patients remotely at clinics in Honduras and Uganda simultaneously. The Honduran and Ugandan clinics are roughly 2,985 and 7,397 miles from Charleston, respectively. Through the power of telemedicine the two clinics were brought within a stethoscope’s reach at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) College of Nursing Simulation Lab for case consultation.
The utility of telemedicine has caught up with the ambitions of its users, which is to treat more patients remotely. Whether it is a physician diagnosing an elderly stroke patient in Marion, SC at a Charleston medical office or consulting cases with colleagues in Masindi, Uganda, connectedness—in both technology and the doctor-patient relationship—is continuously growing.
In the U.S., there are about 16.4 million newly insured Americans under the healthcare law. And as a byproduct of increased insureds, physician and clinician access will increase or demand for care will—however temporary—overwhelm the supply of healthcare professionals. Access by way of telemedicine is remedying patient flux and other issues in the healthcare marketplace. BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and BlueChoice HealthPlan of South Carolina recently agreed to pay for some telemedicine related services given that more patients will access the healthcare system requiring newer, efficient ways to accommodate consumers, especially in remote areas. This is applicable irrespective of location.
MUSC hosted a demonstration to show the power of telemedicine last month by doing case consultations with colleagues in Honduras and Uganda. Palmetto Medical Initiative (PMI) partnered with MUSC to provide in-country support at their Uganda site while assisting in diagnoses in the Simulation Lab.
On the ground in Masindi, Uganda was MUSC Chief Strategic Officer, Mark Lyles, MD, and local physicians comprised the Honduran team in Tegucigalpa. Andrea Summer, MD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and program director for the Certificate in Global Health at MUSC recently used telemedicine technology on a Center for Global Health funded pilot project in Tegucigalpa. She explained that this is the beginning of MUSC’s efforts to reach patients in remote settings in the United States and abroad.
“Telemedicine helps support those clinicians who are out in remote areas because they are able to stay there to treat their patients,” explained Summer. “Rather than travel repeatedly from the city to the rural areas in Honduras, the doctors can just use telemedicine—it saves a lot of time and expense.”
Accompanying Summer stateside in the MUSC Simulation lab were Kenton Holden, MD, professor of neurosciences and Edward O’Bryan, MD, co-founder of PMI and assistant professor at MUSC. Other physicians were present as well. Michael Haschker, senior network engineer at MUSC, maintained the fluid connection between MUSC and the two distant sites.
O’Bryan believes that using telemedicine to consult and diagnose patients in countries like Uganda, where there is 1 doctor for every 10,000 patients, is important in maintaining the progress that has been long in the making up to this point. He believes that increased access using telemedicine is mutually beneficial. The convenience of this technology exposes clinicians to rare disease while providing support to healthcare professionals on the ground.
“I think what we experienced today will revolutionize global medicine, using the practical elements of extending the range of subspecialties around the world,” O’Bryan said. “Not everyone can get on a plane and travel to Africa or Honduras or Asia. But that does not mean they don’t have something meaningful to offer—they can offer it remotely.”
Students, in both the U.S. and abroad, have been drawn to telemedicine’s impact on patient’s lives. “Young graduates are very interested in taking in the technology,” said Holden. Retaining graduates is important, especially considering the physician-to-patient ratio in the developing world.
“Students will stay in their countries if they can have contact and support,” remarked Holden. “Who better to take care of the patients than graduates from those countries?”
The next generation of healthcare professionals will undoubtedly see remarkable innovations that continue to break access and cost barriers. For now, telemedicine’s promise remains largely untapped. As revolutionaries like Summer, Holden and O’Bryan harness its power, its utility and application will continue to level the field for patients around the world.