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Telemedicine: a new approach to an age old problem

November 27, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Healthcare services around the world are facing unprecedented demand from growing populations and the rising costs of supporting them. Can telemedicine and e-health be the answer to improving services at a lower cost?

Caring for increasing numbers of elderly people and chronic illness sufferers is one of the greatest challenges facing developed countries over the next decade. The application of technology in the care of these groups is essential if state and private healthcare systems are to continue to function effectively.

These systems have historically been built on the need for physicians to be in the same location as patients in order to consult and to administer treatment. This is now changing as advances in the e-health industry have increased the availability of remote health care that maximizes physician’s time and reduces costs.

Technology has already done much to increase life expectancy, with advances in medical treatment enabling people to survive conditions that would previously have proved fatal. The challenge for the e-health sector now is to reduce the financial and staffing resources needed to care for greater numbers of older citizens, so that health industry professionals can handle the treatment of a rising number of chronic illness sufferers.

In the past, the solution to increased healthcare demand was simply to provide more hospital beds, but such an approach is no longer sustainable. The recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers Healthcast 2020 study estimated that OECD countries could be spending 16% of their GDP ($10 trillion) on healthcare by 2020. To put that figure in perspective, cumulative health expenditure in the 24 OECD countries in 2002 was $2.7 trillion.

Dedicated healthcare division

In order to accelerate the development of the technology required to reduce pressure on healthcare systems around the world, Orange has over the last decade developed a dedicated healthcare division and formed partnerships with groups from across the health care spectrum, explains Michael Reilly, director Orange Healthcare UK.

“As one of the largest providers of communications services to the public and private healthcare sectors, it made sense for Orange to combine its communications infrastructure and commitment to R&D with medical expertise,” says Reilly. “Every healthcare system is looking at how it can place the patient at the centre of the management of their condition with the objective of using technology to enable more people to manage their conditions from home.”

For example, Orange has developed a remote monitoring solution in partnership with medical device manufacturer Sorin for patients with cardiac rhythm management (CRM) devices. The CRM device sends data to a monitoring system in the patient’s home, which then transmits it securely to the physician.

Using this detailed information, physicians can detect arrhythmia or cardiac disease progression and prescribe appropriate therapy without the patient having to queue for treatment or wait for a home visit. This telemedicine solution reduces the need for possible patient hospitalization and the attendant cost, while freeing up beds for more pressing conditions. It also reduces the need for patients to attend clinics as often, offering them a more comfortable and convenient medical treatment regime.

Orange’s telemedicine solutions have also enabled establishments such as the University Clinic of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, to introduce a remote management system for chronic diseases such as diabetes. The mobile device sends patient data to the hospital via the cellular network, giving physicians a transparent and constant view of patient health.

This reduces the cost of treating diabetic patients through time-consuming check-up visits, while refocusing the physician’s time on the most pressing cases. Patients with diabetes know that their blood glucose level is being constantly monitored, at home as on the move, and they therefore receive a much better quality of treatment compared to having to wait for an appointment if their condition deteriorates.

Within the broader e-health market, Orange’s flagship solution is Connected Hospital, which has integrated the management of patient data across more than 40 hospitals in France, reducing the cost of patient management on a national basis.

more productive physicians

Other Orange e-health innovations that promote productivity include a virtual receptionist service that helps doctors to manage their appointments online, and a service for elderly and disabled users that provides access to around-the-clock assistance and support through a customized mobile device.

“In the UK we are developing a number of applications, including an SMS gateway service aimed at the secondary health care sector and a VPN voice service,” explains Michael Reilly, who also sees considerable potential in the use of technology to manage drug trials.

Orange works collaboratively with customers and partners to develop technology-based solutions for the healthcare industry. An example is the development with a major pharmaceutical company of an asthma solution. This will provide a suite of applications on a mobile phone which the sufferer can use to help manage their condition and to communicate with their clinician.

Although smartphones like the Blackberry and the iPhone provide powerful platforms for e-health applications, they are not the only option. “At the other extreme, in West Africa, we have developed a platform for parents of newborn babies who can communicate their baby’s condition to healthcare professionals using a very basic handset and a simple questionnaire,” says Chris Geary, an Orange Business Services consultant specializing in M2M telemedicine. Technologies such as RFID and ZigBee extend the capability to detect and communicate, for example with intelligent packaging on pharmaceutical products.

While the bulk of e-heath trials are taking place in Europe, Reilly stresses that the benefits of telemedicine will also be felt across the developing world. “In areas where wireless is the dominant communications access mechanism, for example in Africa and large parts of the Indian sub continent, there is an opportunity to use mobile devices to provide access to healthcare services, education and support,” Reilly adds.

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