In some of the Amazon regions of Peru, it can take up to 10 hours of uncomfortable and expensive travel by boat to reach a hospital. But new technologies are bridging this physical gap and allowing even the most remote forest communities to access a doctor quickly.
Pilot projects in South America have shown how ill residents of communities located many hours away from a doctor can receive rapid diagnoses using video and mobile technologies, speeding up treatment and avoiding unnecessary travel.
“We try to use communications technologies to bridge that gap and bring medical services to populations in the most remote locations,” explained Ignacio Prieto Egido Project Director EHAS Foundation, at the European Development Days in November.
The EHAS Foundation, which stands for Enlace Hispano American de Salud, specialises in developing Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) solutions to deliver health care to remote and rural regions of South America.
They’ve developed a number of pilot projects that concretely show the possible benefits of extending communication networks, even in areas with a low population. They hope that by showcasing these projects, they can prove their sustainability from the medical, technical and economic perspective, and scale them up to even the remotest regions.
In the Napo River region of Peru the EHAS Foundation set up a trial project that uses WiFi networks to create a real-time video-link between a patient and doctor located hundreds of kilometres apart.
One gadget they use is a digital stethoscope linked up to a mobile video connection, something like Skype that allows a doctor to hear the stethoscope and see the patient without them ever physically meeting.
The equipment can be operated by technicians with less medical training than a nurse, but ensures a diagnosis made with the support of a trained doctor.
For example, distinguishing between the raspy breaths of influenza and an early stage of potentially fatal pneumonia can be tough for the technicians operating in some of these outposts. But with an experienced emergency doctor supporting via video-link from a city hospital, accurate diagnoses can be made.
Similar high-tech solutions are being found to reduce maternal and infant mortality through telemedicine services such as remote ultrasound scans or telemicroscopy.
Though maternal mortality rates have fallen dramatically in South America in recent years, there remains a large disparity between the safety of giving birth in urban areas compared to rural communities, where risks are significantly higher.
In Guatemala, the EHAS Foundation is working on the Healthy Pregnancy campaign. There, specially selected nurses are given some basic training and small backpack of gear worth less than EUR 4,000 and they have been able to significantly reduce the number of rural women who die in childbirth.
Equipped with an ultrasound scanner, laptop, blood and urinary testing equipment, the nurses are able to detect potential problems that might arise during childbirth or abnormalities of the foetus, so that the mother can get the necessary care she needs.
Scan results can be sent later to a remote location for a second analysis. The nurses even carry their own portable solar panels so that their equipment can operate in communities without electricity.
Innovations are being developed all the time, but for the team at EHAS the next challenge is to find a viable business model and extend cellular networks to all regions, no matter how remote. Cellular networks have expanded massively in developing countries in recent years but there remain isolated pockets without coverage, usually where low population levels make investment unappealing.
“The future is in mobile devices,” said Mr Prieto Egido. “The problem is that for the operator there is no interest because we are talking of low income and low density populations, from which it would be hard to get a commercial return.”
In order to address this problem, EHAS is participating in TUCAN3G, a FP7 project coordinated by the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya that aims to find innovative technologies and business models that allow expanding cellular coverage to isolated communities. In this way, previously mentioned telemedicine services could be offered using mobile networks.