April 2006

Telemedicine

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Safe landing for telemedicine in developing countries, but has the baggage been left on the other side of the digital divide?

ICT-an enabler of medical service
'Networking' is ICT's forte and 'interactivity' is its spirit. In tandem, networking and interactivity have also been catalysing economic and social 'networks' of individuals, professionals, cultures and communities. Overt potential of these diversified networks is their ability to connect and empower distinct groups by allowing them to access, share and exchange information that is crucial for socio-economic development to transform societies into information societies. Most of the applications of ICT like Internet, email and information systems enhance connectivity and linkage, i.e. peer-to-peer networking (also called peer networking).

As ICT has a crucial role to play in education, it also has an equally vital role to play in healthcare.  When we talk of applications of ICT in healthcare, it's 'telemedicine' that reverberates the most. Telemedicine is a subset of e-Health which itself is a broader application of ICT in healthcare. Telemedicine has all the ingredients to boost socio-economic development by means of delivering healthcare services and information in underserved urban and rural communities. For countries like India, those are icons of agrarian society, the benefits that applications like telemedicine offer are highly significant.

The spectrum of benefits of telemedicine ranges from improving local access to speciality care, enhancing primary-care services up to increasing availability and access to medical education and health information resources. While dissolving barriers such as distance, time, geography, weather, and economics, in various forms telemedicine brings services to clients rather than clients to services.

Telemedicine, the emerging phenomenon Virtually, all healthcare delivery systems in the developing world are confronted by some intransigent healthcare issues and there is plenty of evidence that posts telemedicine as a potential solution to many of those. Furthermore, the need for telemedicine in developing countries has also been justified by many researchers, it has also been mentioned categorically that telemedicine may have a more profound impact on the healthcare scenario in the developing countries than in the developed ones. From over two decades, telemedicine has progressively been echoing assurances for tackling these unbending issues. International agencies have designed and deployed numerous pilots in some of the world's most resource limited settings. These pilots have yielded nothing apart from some practical lessons. On the contrary, some studies have even highlighted under-utilisation of potential even during the pilot runs.

The lessons those have been learnt but are yet to be applied, to give birth to sustainable initiatives, capable of bringing about development at large scale.

Network effect and medical services
Being a direct application of ICT in health-care, networking and interactivity are the overriding attributes of telemedicine. Telemedicine furthers interactivity by linking healthcare service providers and consumers otherwise separated by a distance. Hence telemedicine can also be seen as a concept that networks peers and professionals related to healthcare. These networks are established between:

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