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Healing Touch From Space:TELE-MEDICINE BOON FOR RURAL AREAS, by Radhakrishna Rao,7 September 2007 Print E-mail

People and Their Problems

New Delhi, 7 September 2007

Healing Touch From Space


By Radhakrishna Rao

Tele-medicine is an important initiative of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to use space technology for societal benefits. The organisation which has been instrumental in popularizing the tele-medicine network in the country, has unveiled a new plan to develop and launch a dedicated health care satellite which would help expand the tele-medicine services in the country in a big way. In fact, ISRO has given an impetus to its tele-medicine project by making available relevant technology and bandwidth capacity onboard the INSAT domestic communications spacecraft.

While ISRO provides the tele-medicine systems, which include the software, hardware and communications equipment as well as the satellite bandwidth, the State Governments and specialty hospitals have to allocate funds for their part of infrastructure, manpower and maintenance. Technology development standards and cost effective systems have also been evolved in association with various State Governments, NGOs and the health industry.

Presently, there are 186 hospitals in the tele-medicine network including 152 in the remote and rural areas and 34 super specialty hospitals in major town. Further, ISRO also supports the tele-medicine national grid activities through the task force formed by the Directorate of Health Services. Appropriately, tele-medicine has been described as “a healing touch from space”.

Incidentally, the Indian tele-medicine network is an indigenous enterprise with Indian built spacecraft systems and computer software engineered by experts playing a key role in it. The tele-medicine system involving the use of IT (Information Technology), satellite systems and communications technology enables the transmission of medical images and health care data of a patient to an expert at a super specialty hospital to facilitate timely diagnosis and early treatment. In this way, the disorder of a patient in a remote rural area can easily be diagnosed and an appropriate treatment course prescribed on time.

Significantly, the tele-medicine initiative launched by ISRO way back in 2001 took off with a pilot project linking Apollo hospital, Chennai with the Apollo hospital in Aragonda village in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. This was followed by the linking of the Bangalore-based super specialty cardiac care centre Narayana Hrudyalaya with Chamarajanagara District hospital in Karnataka. Similarly, a tele-medicine network put in place moments after the killer earthquake hit parts of Gujarat in early 2001 helped save many lives.

When the killer tsunami waves battered the islands of Andaman and Nicobar in the Bay of Bengal in December 2004, the tele-medicine network operated by the INS Dhanvantri Naval Hospital and the G.B.Pant Hospital at Port Blair and the Bishop Richardson Hospital at Car Nicobar were pressed into service and used extensively for consultation and treatment.

Further, a temporary tele-medicine facility at Pamba in the foothills of the popular pilgrim centre of Sabarimalai in the Western Ghats stretches of southern Kerala caters to the needs of millions of pilgrims visiting this holy seat during the peak season stretching from November to January. The Chennai-based Shankara Nethralaya and the Madurai based Aravind Eye Hospital too are making use of the mobile tele-medicine facility to provide eye care services to the people in the remote and rural areas of Tamil Nadu.

The integrated tele-cardiology and tele-health project launched by the Kolkatta-based Asia Heart Foundation (AHF) has hubs at Narayana Hrudayalaya and the Rabindranath Tagore International Cardiac Care Centre at Kolkatta.The AHF has also initiated tele-medicine projects in Pakistan and Malaysia. On the other hand, the Narayana Hrudayalaya operates tele-medicine centres in many of the African countries.

In a significant development the Oman-based medical centre of the Apollo Group of hospitals has been linked to the Apollo tele-medicine network with a view to facilitate the Oman centre to have an easy access to ‘high end  expertise” available in the Apollo hospitals to cater to the medical needs of the people of Oman. Apart from video consultation, the Indian specialists would be able to review a patient’s investigation in Oman and give their opinion to the doctors attending on the patients. Besides, tele-medicine could also be used for taking a second opinion from the experienced Indian doctors in complex clinical situations.

Nearer home, the New Delhi-based Sir Ganga Ram Hospital (SGRH) as part of its commitment to provide specialized health care services to rural communities has set up a tele-medicine network which facilitates many community health centres in Haryana and Rajasthan to access the hospital’s super-specialty medical expertise. Inaugurating the tele-medicine project, the Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, asserted, “It aims to provide quality health care, early diagnosis and tertiary consultation from SGRH to medical kiosks established in village hospitals”.

Importantly, an impact study conducted on 1000 patients has revealed that there is significant cost saving involved in using a tele-medicine network. According to the Chairman of ISRO G.Madhavan Nair, “we have reduced the hardware transmission costs by 25 per cent in less than three years. It is a good opportunity to reach space applications to the community and extend it to mobile vans, dedicated terminals and tele-medicine trained doctors.” He also revealed that tele-medicine has exposed doctors serving in rural areas of the country to many novel technologies being introduced in the super specialty hospitals located in the urban centres.

Clearly, tele-medicine a concept whose time has come is a boon for a vast majority of the rural population which has virtually little access to health care facilities and finds it difficult to travel to urban centres for medical treatment.  Even as hospitals, clinics and super specialty centres are expanding at a rapid pace in the urban centres, for an average Indian villager, getting timely, proper and cost effective medical treatment is an expensive proposition. Thus, the expansion of tele-medicine services could go a long way towards filling a vital gap in the country’s rural health care services. ---- INFA

(Copyright India News and Feature Alliance)

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