- Telecommunications are bringing medical services to remote areas, saving lives and money.
- The future of such services lies in mobile technology, but the challenge is to come up with a convincing business model.
- Health kits can provide vital, affordable prenatal services to women.
With the help of telecommunications technology, doctors can examine and diagnose patients in remote areas, who may be hours of travel away, without moving from their surgeries or offices. Lives - and money - can be saved by prompt and accurate diagnoses, and unnecessary travel avoided. This session focused on two projects, one in the Napo river of Peru and the other in a remote area of Guatemala, initiated by the EHAS Foundation.
EHAS has been experimenting with technological solutions to the provision of medical services since the 1990s. Starting with radio, it moved on to the Internet and Wi-Fi connections and is now seeking to exploit the possibilities of mobile technology.
Wi-Fi has enabled the transmission of images, film and video-conferencing. In the Napo valley, health technicians, with a level of training below that of a nurse, have been instructed in the use of quite sophisticated medical equipment under the guidance of a doctor who may be many kilometres away.
In the case of mobile technology, the main challenge is to create a viable business model that will attract the providers of mobile services. ‘The future is in mobile devices. 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,’ said Ignacio Prieto Egido, Project Director, EHAS Foundation.
The mobile operators use base stations and satellite uplinks that are expensive. EHAS, together with its partners, is working on a project that may help to convince the mobile operators that such services can be economically viable. The Peruvian project, known as TUCAN3G, will use femocells, which are cheaper, lower-powered, cellular base stations. One proposal is to share some of the available bandwidth with other users, thus making the system more economically sustainable.
Millions of children die each year before the age of five from easily preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhoea. About 400,000 women die every year in pregnancy, nearly all of them in low-income countries. With the help of a portable health kit comprising a computer, an ultrasound scanning device, batteries and small portable solar panels, prenatal services are being offered in the remote Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala in a project initiated by EHAS. The kit costs some EUR 3,500, but this works out to about EUR 25 per test, which is not an unsustainable cost, even for poorer developing countries.
Technology has a crucial role to play in extending the benefits of sustainable social development, including health services, to poor isolated communities. But technology is not neutral and it is important that these communities accept it and do not see it as an imposition. Technology can help reduce the costs of delivering services, but more work needs to be done on questions of sustainability and maintenance.