July 2007

Telemedicine Gets a Human Face

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This initiative of the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka endeavours to take the dividends of the highly specialized field of human genetics to rural communities through an ICT platform, and draws on the infrastructure facilities of the newest Nenasala at the Kurunegala Hospital and that of the Koslanda Nenasala.

The Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka's Nenasala Project has broken new ground when it opened its first Hospital Nenasala at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital on 11 June 2007, under the patronage of the Sri Lanka's Minister of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and Kurunegala district's  MP, Jayarathna Herath. Kurunegala is a district of Sri Lanka.

Here it deserves a mention that the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka is the single apex body involved in ICT policy and direction for the nation. Wholly owned by the Government of Sri Lanka, ICTA is the implementing organization of the e-Sri Lanka Initiative. The e-Sri Lanka Initiative initiated by the Government of Sri Lanka, aims to provide access to diverse and unrestricted sources of information and means of communication to all the citizens of Sri Lanka. One aspect of the e-Sri Lanka Initiative is that the ICTA will address the current ICT infrastructure deficiencies in rural areas of Sri Lanka. A key objective of this programme is to establish multi-service community information centres or Nenasalas (Nenasala in Sinhalese means global knowledge centres), which will provide access to Internet, telephones and other information services along with training, etc. to the public in rural communities.

Coming back to this new venture, the project has been made possible through the partnership of the ICTA with the Human Genetics Unit of the Medical Faculty University of Colombo and the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital.

The Nenasala Project

Nenasala Project is one of the projects implemented under the e-Sri Lanka Initiative. Formally known as the 'Vishva Gnana Kendra Project (Nenasala)', ICTA has incorporated it under the 'Nenasala' label to introduce several models of the telecentres or knowledge centres to be established in all parts of Sri Lanka; for spreading ICT services to the rural and semi-urban population of this island-nation.

The significance of this latest ICTA initiative is that it opens up new opportunities in healthcare for remote rural communities. For the poor and underserved in Sri Lanka, living in remote rural areas of the island nation, access to quality healthcare is a challenge. One of the many ways in which ICT can facilitate healthcare is through remote consultation, diagnosis, and treatment through telemedicine, which is gaining currency in the Sri Lankan health scenario.  An inconceivable phenomenon not too long ago, it is now a fast growing reality in Sri Lanka;  now a patient in a remote rural area is able to obtain expert advice from a specialist in Colombo without having to move out of his local environment. Although this technological revolution is yet to bring a paradigm shift in the delivery of healthcare services, increasing sophistication in supporting technologies such as telecommunication, mobile monitoring devices, etc. has made telemedicine systems much more potent than ever before. This initiative of the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka endeavours to take the dividends of the highly specialized field of human genetics to rural communities through an ICT platform, and draws on the infrastructure facilities of the newest Nenasala at the Kurunegala Hospital and that of the Koslanda Nenasala.

There are thousands of disorders caused by genetic defects, some of which are very rare, while others such as Thalassaemia are common and affect a large number of people. Taken as a whole, the number of people affected by genetic disorders is quite significant and comprises a sizeable percentage of the population of Sri Lanka. Besides the human angle, as these conditions cause long term disability, their effect on the economy of the country due to the drain on healthcare and social services is enormous
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Presently there is only one centre in Sri Lanka providing such clinical genetic services, and that is the Human Genetics Unit of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. It isn't possible for everyone to come to Colombo to seek the advice of the geneticists of this faculty, especially because some of the people affected with genetic disorders are disabled and cannot travel long distances. However, the development of an island-wide network of Nenasalas equipped with ICT infrastructure and broadband connectivity has opened up an array of opportunities in the field of healthcare. The Human Genetics Unit, Faculty of Medicine, Colombo can now be contacted online without the need to come to Colombo for a physical examination. This telegenetic project  is aimed at giving the opportunity to remote and underserved  communities of Sri Lanka to get the best genetic advice available in the country, which is on par with that of anywhere in the world, via videoconferencing with the clinical geneticists in the Human Genetics Unit of the Faculty of Medicine, at the University of Colombo. The pilot programme of this project involves online consultations with patients of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital and the Koslanda District Hospital and will be coordinated through the Kurunegala Hospital Nenasala and the Koslanda Nenasala.  

V.K. Samaranayake: An Asian ICT Stalwart Departs

On 7 June 2007, the ICT industry of Sri Lanka  suffered an emotional jolt when Professor V.K. Samaranayake passed away  in Stockholm, where he had gone to attend a review of the Swedish government's ICT development assistance programme. He was 68, which by modern standards is far behind the age of dying. It is very true that death keeps no calendar. It is a grave loss to not only the ICT industry of Sri Lanka, but to the entire ICT fraternity of South-East Asia.

Prof. Samaranayake was the Chairman of the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka from 2004. He also held  the esteemed chair of the Emeritus Professor of Computer Science of the University of Colombo. He was also the founder Director, University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) of the University of Colombo.  In fact, he served the University of Colombo for a continuous period of 43 years since his first appointment in 1961, immediately following his graduation from the same university. Prof. Samaranayake also happened to be the founder of the Department of Statistics and Computer Science (DSCS) and the Institute of Computer Technology (ICT) of the University of Colombo. These two institutions were merged as the UCSC in 2002. He was a Fellow of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project and the National Centre for Digital Government of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. In 2005, he was appointed as a Visiting Fellow of the Digital Vision Program of  Stanford University, USA.

There were many more feathers on his illustrious cap. Prof. Samaranayake served  the Council for Information Technology (CINTEC), the apex national agency for IT in Sri Lanka, as its Chairman, for a period of 12 years. In the field of IT he has pioneered work on IT policy,  EDI/e-Commerce, security, Internet technology, computer awareness and IT education.  Prof. Samaranayake was also actively involved in the development of multilingual web sites. This renowned academician was  instrumental in facilitating the application of computers in many areas of Sri Lankan governance, including Sri Lankan national elections. He was also actively involved in introducing ICT to rural communities of Sri Lanka, and was engaged in developing multipurpose community telecentres. There's more to his seemingly never ending achievements. The ICT pioneer was a member of the advisory panel of the Asia IT&C program of the European Commission. He chaired the national Y2K task force that coordinated the very successful crossover to the year 2000. More recently, he initiated the External Degree of Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) of the University of Colombo, which in its very first year of operations has attracted 5000 registrations. 

The Government of Sri Lanka has honoured Prof. Samaranayake for his contribution towards IT by the award of Vidya Prasadini in 1997, and the national honour Vidya Jyothi in 1998. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has presented its President's Award for International Cooperation to Prof. Samaranayake in 1996, in recognition of his contribution. At its convocation held in January 2005, the University of Colombo conferred on Prof. Samaranayake the Degree of Doctor of Science ( Honouris Causa) for his outstanding contribution to the University.

On his passing away Reshan Dewapura, COO of  ICTA, Sri Lanka  said, “Everyone in the ICT industry in Sri Lanka has either met or worked with Professor Samaranayake. It was his sense of commitment towards ICT development in the country coupled with his boundless energy that set him apart and allowed him to make lasting alliances and friendships, both personally and professionally, around the world. There is no doubt that Prof's tireless commitment to the ICT industry has made his contribution over the years remarkable. He will be greatly missed.” Dewapura couldn't have been more correct.  Professor Samaranayake would be missed, not only as an ICT pioneer of Sri Lanka, but as someone who infused human element in ICT to foster enduring development.   

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