Telemedicine is nothing new. A patient who lives in Germany can be treated by doctors in the US, Britain or Australia thanks to the Internet. In complicated cases, the best specialists in the world can give advice to patients anywhere else in the world. A new telemedicine project wants to bring modern healthcare to Pakistan, where 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas without access to clean water and in conditions which mean that illness is widespread.
There is a shortage of specialized doctors in Pakistan
Jalal Jattan looks like many other villages in Pakistan. People often live with their hens or goats in the same room. Mudassar Ghori has long had skin problems. But the next doctor lives 100 kilometres away. He has to spend hours in the bus to get to Gujrat for treatment in the local hospital. But even in this city there are no doctors specialised in skin disease.
However, Mudassar is lucky. Gujrat is taking part in a pilot telemedicine project. The hospital has been set up with state-of-the-art IT equipment. Mudassar discusses his problems with a skin specialist at a hospital in Rawalpindi in a videoconference.
"This is a good system for poor people", says Mudassar. "Now we can be treated without having to travel so far. Most people can’t afford to leave their village and travel a long distance."
Shortage of specialized doctors
There are 100,000 doctors for 160 million Pakistanis. And only 400 are specialised in dermatology. Telemedicine centres are being established across the country so that everyone can benefit from specialist advice. Azif Zafar, the director of the Holy Family hospital in Rawalpindi, explains:
"The first thing we addressed was that we needed to train people in telemedicine. So a telemedicine centre was established. This was the initiative of the ministry of science and technology in Pakistan and the ministry of science and technology in the US. They funded this project which provided the environment for healthcare physicians to get training in telemedicine and the use of information technology and various tools in telemedicine."
These tools include videoconferencing, chatrooms and scanners for sending ultrasound images or x-rays, for example.
One software company has also created a database to collect patient data and to answer their queries -- the nationwide scheme is called TelmedPak. Shehriyar Anwar, the project coordinator, says:
"The situation of data is very bad. Everything is on hard copy and the way it is stored, it is impossible for medical students to do any kind of research on that. One of the purposes of this database is to have the data available so that medical professionals can do research and bring the necessary changes."
Free online advice
Patients can already log in to telmedpak.com and get free advice from specialist doctors. At the moment, there are about 50 queries a week -- mostly to do with gynaecological problems. The doctors and IT specialists, who all work on a voluntary basis, do their best to answer queries within 48 hours, 24 if it’s very urgent.
Pakistan’s IT sector is growing and this means that even rural areas should have access to broadband or high-speed Internet very soon. This will enable even the poorest who can’t afford to travel long distances to see a doctor to be able to consult specialists at low cost.