The logistics of seeing a physician can be challenging, even in a country like the United States, where hospitals and clinics are plentiful. Live in a rural area, away from specialty care? Can’t get off work to make that appointment? All of those obstacles inhibit access to care for many in the U.S.
Hurdles for those needing care are exponentially higher in many countries around the world, where there may not even be enough doctors to treat the sheer volume of patients.
Filling that gap of expertise was at the heart of the 11th Telehealth Innovation Forum hosted by InTouch Health in Santa Barbara this week. The company’s signature robots and software allow patients and doctors to connect, no matter where each is in the world.
Direct Relief has partnered with InTouch on a pilot program to connect those in need with medical care, and the details of the program were announced Wednesday when Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe took the stage.
InTouch’s health systems have been sent to hospitals in Jordan, Malawi and Haiti to facilitate specialty care needed by patients.
If it makes sense in the United States to use telehealth to fill gaps in care, how much more does it make sense around the world, where doctors become much more scarce, Tighe asked the audience.
“This human resource gap is huge and getting worse,” he said.
Many healthcare professionals leave their home countries to seek employment, leaving a dearth of trained doctors and nurses to see patients.
In Jordan, the InTouch robot will connect dermatologists to patients in Zaatari camp, a large settlement that’s home to more than 80,000 people, most of whom are Syrian refugees. Dermatological services, like skin care screenings, can be overlooked when a specialist isn’t on site to see patients.
Many doctors take time out of their schedules to travel on medical missions to treat patients. While trips like this are impactful, they amount to “a really expensive house call,” Tighe said.
The program between InTouch and Direct Relief aims to create a consistent and more efficient connection between doctor and patient.
Another robot has gone to Bwaila Maternity Hospital in Malawi, where surgeons that can operate on patients with fistula are in short supply. Obstetric fistula is a birth injury that can be devastating to women, but a surgeon trained in repair techniques can be a game-changer in the equation.
But in a country with one physician for every 55,000 people – one of the worst ratios in the world – surgeons with these skills are in high demand.
That’s why an InTouch robot was sent, to connect doctors with patients.
Though there’s no commercial value to helping consumers that can’t pay for services, “there’s a high humanitarian reason to help,” Tighe said, adding that there’s value in not only sharing products and money with those in need but also expertise.
This connection of expertise was a common thread of other speakers at the forum.
Mohan Naidu, who works with Oppenheimer and Company, said that the gap between a telehealth visit between doctor and patient and an in-person visit is closing faster than ever before. He urged providers to “be ready to embrace change.”
Using the technology to treat people close to their medical homes in a lower cost settings is a huge benefit of telehealth that other speakers touched on.
Dr. Tanya Holt, who works in pediatric critical care at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatchewan, spoke about how telehealth allows young patients to receive care earlier, and closer to home, improving their chance of recovery.
Debra Philpot of TriStar Health also briefed the audience on how telehealth allows specialized care for conditions like stroke, among the company’s hospitals in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.