Healing power

Cutting edge communications technology is being used to help save patients lives and make healthcare professionals’ jobs easier in two very different settings, with vendors reaping the rewards of the growing sector.

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By  George Bevir Published  February 14, 2009

Cutting edge communications technology is being used to help save patients lives and make healthcare professionals’ jobs easier in two very different settings, with vendors reaping the rewards of the growing sector.

For those who live in rural areas, gaining access to healthcare can be expensive and time consuming, as the cost of maintaining a hospital or clinic for a small number of people can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes forcing those who need medical attention to travel large distances.

Girish Trivedi, deputy director of Frost and Sullivan's Information and Communication Technology Practice, says that the main costs involved in the provision of healthcare are related to the proximity of the patient in relation to the healthcare provider.

Healthcare is one of the faster growing segments globally for Alcatel-Lucent.

"Most of it is focused on personalised interactions which is not necessary all the time. Also if you see the requirement of a person in need of medical attention in semi-urban areas and rural areas, or even lesser developed urban areas, they may need to travel and incur higher costs than for healthcare payouts.

"Communication infrastructure can play a very important role by providing better bandwidth, and healthcare applications over communications infrastructure such as video monitoring, resulting in less travel and timely healthcare services as well as lower costs for better healthcare facilities," Trivedi says.

The Pakistan Telemedicine Project, a partnership involving Abu Dhabi Group's Wateen Telecom and Motorola enables a "hub" or a central coordinating hospital to communicate with "spoke" hospitals that may have limited resources. By connecting the two, information and expertise can be passed between them in real-time.

Some of the expanded medical care offered by one of the hospitals involved in the scheme in Pakistan includes pre-operative planning and follow-up; cardiac assessment; ophthalmology; dermatology; radiology; treatment of infectious diseases; perinatal evaluations and medical triage for traumas and acute illnesses.

Telemedicine expert and surgeon, Dr Asif Zafar, of the Holy Family Hospital that is involved in the scheme says: "Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world - a nation of 173 million people. The goal of this project is to highlight technology's ability to overcome a significant healthcare imbalance. 75% of the population lives in rural areas but only 22% of the doctor's work there."

As well as using Wateen's nationwide Motorola WiMAX network the partnership combines an internet-access portal providing tools such as secure email, voice and video conferencing on a secure "telemedicine" network with medical peripheral devices including portable ultrasound, digital cameras, EKG, stethoscope and an X-ray machine.

Valuable market

Alcatel-Lucent's vice president of sales and support for emerging markets, Jan Zuurbier, says that the healthcare sector is growing in importance for vendors. He estimates that healthcare provides around 11%-12% of Alcatel-Lucent's Enterprise division's business, which he says is a 1 billion euro business (US$1.3 billion).

"It is one of the faster growing segments globally for Alcatel-Lucent," Zuurbier says. "Over the last year it has been growing at about 15-20%, and in North America even more, where I think we have been seeing growth rates of around 30% in our business for the healthcare industry, given a couple of very large projects we have there. For my region of the emerging markets the growth in healthcare is about 15%, which is also about the growth rate that we have witnessed for the healthcare segment throughout the Gulf area."

Nortel's account director for the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, Steve Joyner says that healthcare is one of the top five verticals for the Canadian vendor, and it is a sector that he is confident will continue to be of benefit to vendors.

"Despite all of the economic downturn this is a vertical that can't afford to rationalise too much. I would expect that it at least maintains if not grows in the single digits," Joyner says.

"It can not afford to go backwards. Everything else in the world can decline appropriately, but there will be the same volume of ill people, if not more - that won't change. This particular vertical really can't afford to take its eye off the ball, but what it will do is look to become more efficient and this is where we hope that some of our solutions can save them money down the line elsewhere."

Pioneering technology

A $300 million joint-venture between Alcatel-Lucent and University of Pittsburgh has been established to deliver healthcare solutions developed by Alcatel-Lucent's innovation arm Bell Labs to the market. One of the products that has been developed is a ‘digital stethoscope'.

"What they have done is taken the stethoscope and through sensor and sound technology they can digitise whatever the doctor can hear, store it on a laptop, PDA or server," says Zuurbier.

"Then when the patient returns they don't have to judge by ear; they can judge based on the digitised format and the frequency spectrum, and immediately they can check against templates for a specific illness and see if the patient is improving or getting worse."

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