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Diagnostics Without Borders: Innovations in Telehealth

Mwihaki Kimura Muraguri — Former Sr. Associate Director, Health, Africa Regional Office

The following post is part of a series based on research conducted around the health of the urban working poor

Photo credit: Tunstall

We have all experienced the seemingly endless wait in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. For most of us, taking a few hours off work does not have lasting consequences, but for working poor populations—especially daily wage workers—in lower and middle income countries, the time it takes to travel to, and wait at, the clinic or hospital is one of the biggest barriers to accessing healthcare.

While, for rural populations, the distance to the nearest health facility and lack of transport is a significant challenge, in urban poor communities, hours of traffic and rigid work schedules disallow people from seeking professional medical care.

The Emergence of Telehealth

With the rise of cell and smart phones, however, many organizations are looking to telehealth technologies to address the critical time constraint that prevents many individuals from accessing healthcare. Telehealth uses mobile phones to communicate important preventative healthcare information through phone calls and text message, in a language that local populations understand. It also allows for more innovative diagnostic techniques such as tablet enabled screenings, which facilitates long-distance clinical care. From “dial-a-doc” services to Skype physician consults, these interventions seek to match the quality of care delivered during in-person physician visits, but at a lower cost and in a way that requires significantly less time for the patient.

The benefits of telehealth programs reach beyond simply decreasing the time it takes to seek out professional care. For example, many telehealth diagnostic tools can be delivered by lesser trained individuals, which means that community health workers in remote rural villages can diagnose illnesses among patients just as well as expensive in-person tests.

“There is also evidence that the quality of care delivered by this technology is almost identical to in-person doctor’s visits.”

Although, it is also important to note that organizations delivering successful telehealth services emphasize working closely with care providers first, to ensure that they are comfortable with the technology and believe in its value proposition.

Though promising, telehealth technology is not without its critics. Researchers are divided on the cost effectiveness of telehealth on the health system as a whole, as this technology requires a significant investment to develop as well as the time and cost to train medical personnel in using it.

Beyond cost concerns, the transmission of patient files via the Internet in telediagnostics can threaten patient privacy. In developing countries, the lack of functioning internet networks or electricity can also present a challenge to using telehealth tools that rely on online connectivity.

Yet, despite these potential challenges, there is broad agreement that the impact of telehealth diagnostics could be nothing short of lifesaving.

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