The Way We Work
February 5, 2013 by Julia Camenisch

In the African nation of Botswana, there is just one public oral surgeon available. For patients in rural areas, travel to the specialist’s office in the capital city of Gaborone is difficult, and follow-up visits are almost impossible.

Thanks to innovations being pioneered by remote medicine advocates, however, all that changed in 2010.

Botswana, a country of approximately two million people, has one of the highest cell phone density rates in the world — 144 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 people.

Clinicians at remote hospitals began to use this readily available technology to their advantage. Using their phones, they began sending pictures and detailed information to the specialist so their rural patients didn’t have to make that initial visit to Gaborone. As a result, patients were able to receive better care in a shorter time.

While the specialist shortage in Botswana may seem extreme, forecasts indicate that the number of health workers is on the decline worldwide. This, in turn, will prompt a corresponding rise in the amount of medically underserved areas — particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia.

That’s where the fledgling field of telemedicine is poised to change everything. It’s a sector with such great potential that the World Bank has invested $1.5 billion in it.

Telemedicine is the use of technology to diagnose and/or treat patients remotely. Sometimes that is through video consultations, such those used by Nantucket Hospital to connect patients with experts anywhere in the world. In other instances, it can be through sending photos and conducting patient interviews with mobile devices, like the process that ClickMedix is pioneering.

Serving the Underserved

Ting Shih is the founder of ClickMedix, an innovative telemedicine company that won the 2012 Cartier Women’s Initiative award for its compelling business plan. While getting her MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shih was challenged by a professor to create a business that would impact one billion people. She chose to focus on health care by harnessing the power of the mobile phone.

“There are never going to be enough doctors in the world," she said. "We have to be smart on how we are going to address the [medical care] bottleneck. The way we have been successfully addressing the problem is by using a mobile phone to send the symptoms to the [remote] doctor so they spend just a quarter of the time [in diagnosis].”

One example of ClickMedix’s power was shown in a clinic in Botswana. Nurse midwives were trained in a simple procedure to diagnosis cervical cancer. They took pictures using camera phones of precancerous lesions, then sent them to a women’s health specialist who returned a diagnosis.

According to Shih, the initiative did more than just provide same-day diagnoses, which is a significant achievement in and of itself. “After the nurses saw several months of the back and forth ‘cancerous or not’ decisions, several of them became just as accurate as the women’s health expert in making the diagnosis,” reported Shih.

Major humanitarian crises are another sphere in which telemedicine is making a major impact.

Randy Roberson of Disaster Logistics Relief made use of telemedicine during the Haiti earthquake in 2010. By using a solar-powered telemedicine backpack coupled with the VSee video conferencing platform, Roberson was able to partner with a doctor in the United States who could examine the patients remotely and give treatment recommendations. They even had an electronic stethoscope so the doctor could listen to patients’ heartbeat and lungs.

The Doctor of the Future

Shih sees telemedicine as crucial, not just for developing countries, but also for developed nations like the United States and the United Kingdom.

“If you look at the aging population, most people 65 or above have various ailments that require them to need five to 10 different doctors," she said. "They spend a lot of time visiting doctors and driving to and from visits.”

Shih sees telemedicine as a way to save time for many of these patients, while also simplifying their health care needs. And she’s not the only one.

Dr. Linda Godleski of Yale University recently published an article showing that mental health patients prefer remote sessions over face-to-face ones. Not only are the remote sessions easier to schedule, they are also providing better results. According to the study, patients were 24 percent less likely to need hospital care after participating in remote psychiatric care.

Meanwhile, in El Paso, Texas, the closest dermatologist for Medicaid patients is more than six hours away. But thanks to Texas Tech’s telemedicine department, low-income patients in need of specialized care can simply come to the university’s center and receive specialized consultations with remote doctors. This not only cuts down on the burden of travel for these patients, it also cuts down on Medicaid transportation costs.

If the advancement of telemedicine sounds similar to online work, that's because it is — they have the same foundation of using technology to enable remote collaboration and facilitate types of work that weren't possible before.

“We are just scratching the surface of this new way of working. The possibilities are endless,” oDesk CEO Gary Swart commented about the online work revolution; the same could easily be said for telemedicine. As new technologies continue to disrupt the industry, it’s very possible that for millions of people around the world, access to reliable health care will soon be only a click away.

Have you seen telemedicine in action? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.