SECRETARIAT PACIFIC COMMUNITY (SPC)

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Noumea, New Caledonia

PRESS RELEASE December 1, 1998

TELEMEDICINE IS COST-EFFECTIVE FOR OFF-ISLAND REFERRAL CARE

New communication technologies can be used for numerous cost-effective applications in medicine and health. Their role in networking health professionals was emphasized especially in the field of off-island referral care. The issue was raised on the second day of a regional conference on Telehealth in the Pacific in Noumea.

Victor Yano, President of the Pacific Basin Medical Association, outlined the need for better communication links between in-country practitioners and overseas specialists. Prior to 1995, communication involved the use of long distance telephone, faxes, and regular mail. "Connecting to an (off-island) specialist required a long sequence of events before being connected to the right person," he described.

Things have changed with the use of new tools like still-image phone systems. With this small device, freeze-images are captured at the sending end by a camcorder and transmitted to a remote receiver unit where they can be displayed and stored. A separate consultation form about the patient is submitted as a fax to specialists of the referral hospital.

"For the first time ever, color patient images, patient data, and X-ray images could be transmitted with the submission of a written medical report," Mr. Yano said.

Though highly sophisticated, telemedecine and telehealth activities are cost-effective, according to Dr. Hedson from Federated States of Micronesia. "Pohnpei State, with 40,000 people, spends 10 percent of the health budget in referring patients off-island for tertiary treatments, serving only one percent of the total population," he said. Before the Internet era, approximately US$ 1,500 per month was spent on telephone bills for outside consultations, mainly with overseas specialists. With the Internet connectivity, and the consult web page, particularly at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, where most of the referral patients are treated, the bill had decreased to below US$ 500 per month for consultations, a saving of US$ 1,000 per month.

Other Pacific countries and territories benefit from these communication tools which link in-country practitioners to overseas colleagues. "In Majuro, Marshall Islands, the telemedicine activities have been settled since seven and a half months, and mainly confined to referrals and teleconsultations," Dr. Gunawardane explained.

Most of the health professionals attending the Pacific Telehealth Conference expressed their support to the development of email and Internet applications in medicine and health. The main difficulties so far are limitation of online access and computer illiteracy amongst most physicians.

For further information, please contact: Mina Vilayleck Surveillance Information Assistant Secretariat of the Pacific Community PHS&CDC Section PO Box D5 Noumea, NEW CALEDONIA Phone: (687) 26.20.00; Fax: (687) 26.38.18 Email: minav@spc.org.nc

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