Poverty and distance are the enemies of health. In the rich world, high-quality medical care is usually a short drive away, because there are three physicians available, on average, to serve every 1,000 people. In South Africa, however, there are 0.8 doctors per 1,000, even though it is one of Africa’s most prosperous countries. In Tanzania, the average is only 0.3 per 1,000.
Whether in rural counties or remote mines and wellheads, people can also find themselves far from help when help is needed most. That is why health systems around the world turn to satellite to extend the reach of medical care.
In the early 1980s, a ship called the Anastasis set sail from the United States for the coast of Africa. It was a hospital ship, staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses and medical technicians. Over time, the three vessels of the charity, Mercy Ships, have conducted thousands of life-saving, often life-changing surgeries and medical procedures. “For surgeries in particular, there are two key areas – lab and radiology – that depend on a connection with satellite,” Mercy Ships’ programs design director Michelle Bullington told Via Satellite. “In our lab, we use it to help with diagnoses from a remote location back to the US. All of the scans from our radiology department are read remotely.”
This remote delivery of care, consultation and training is called telemedicine – and it is having a huge and growing impact on people’s lives. According to a study of a single telemedicine network by the American Telemedicine Association, medical consultations between rural hospitals and metropolitan medical centers over a four-year period saved more than 850 lives, prevented more than 11,000 serious drug interactions and reduced costs by $44 million.
Thirteen thousand feet above sea level in the Himalayan Mountains, Apollo Hospitals has brought telemedicine to the top of the world, in a government-assisted project called Himachal Pradesh Telehealth Services. The location is so remote that it a helicopter was needed to ferry in the equipment, and the Apollo team’s first job was to clear 20 feet of snow and ice around the local clinic for the satellite terminal. They equipped the clinic with a two-way video link and remote diagnostic kit for measuring vital signs. It was put to the test when two local people suffered heart attacks. Consulting remotely with emergency doctors in Chennai, India, the telemedicine team was able to rapidly stabilize the patients and prescribe next steps. Since then, hundreds more have had consultations with faraway doctors who would otherwise never have set eyes on them otherwise.
Ships at sea, oil platforms and remote mining sites face isolation almost as extreme. To meet their needs, George Washington University (GWU) teamed with software developer Diginonymous to develop Digi+Doc. It gives its users voice and video access to more than 500 physicians and specialists at the GWU Medical Facility. VSee, a private company, provides telemedicine support for two Shell oil platforms off the Nigerian coast, which allows the single medic on duty to bring aboard the expertise of multiple physicians. (The VSee system is also in use aboard the International Space Station for everything from medical consults to school presentations.)
A different satellite technology holds out hope for stopping epidemics before they begin. Insects are responsible for spreading many diseases, and climate change, trade and travel are constantly driving insect populations to new areas. A consortium of Belgian companies, supported by the European Space Agency, has developed a software and services package called Vecmap. It improves how field researchers gather data and how public health authorities use it. The work begins with field researchers placing insect traps and checking them periodically to identify, count and test the insect found there. They enter data into the smartphone app, which captures exact GPS coordinates as well, and Vecmap pools the information to map high-risk areas on a satellite images. This is invaluable information for public health officials working to prevent the next epidemic. It also helps field researchers find those traps in the field as well as select new target areas, which are the most time-consuming and costly part of data-gathering.
Health is the greatest gift. Wherever poverty or distance denies that gift to the world’s people, satellite brings a healing hand and hope for a better life.
OECD Health Data 2007. “Ten Countries Desperately Seeking Doctors,” IRIN, 19 May 2010. “How a Hospital Ship Relies on Satellite to Save Lives,” by Caleb Henry, Via Satellite, March 4, 2016. “SES Deploys SatMed at Children’s Hospital in Niger,” Via Satellite, April 22, 2016. “SES Improves Quality Healthcare Access in Benin,” SES, June 4, 2015. “Avera eCARE Supports 675 Rural Clinicians in the Delivery of Highest-Quality Care,” American Telemedicine Association, 2013. “Apollo Hospitals Establishes Telemedicine in the Himalayas,” Vsee.com. “Satellite Medcine,” by Mark Fusco, PassageMaker, July/August 2014. “Managing the Ebola Virus: The Importance of Satellites,” by Joanne Wheeler, Via Satellite, May 14, 2015. “Satellites Helping to Assess Risk of Epidemics,” European Space Agency, 2014.
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