Dr Marco is one of several specialists in Spain, Italy and Denmark who began using a telecounselling service last year developed by HEALTH OPTIMUM, a groundbreaking project funded under the European Commission's eTEN programme that is helping to kick start the deployment of telemedicine across Europe.
Coupled with a telelaboratory service that allows patient test samples to be analysed remotely, the internet-based HEALTH OPTIMUM solutions are having a profound impact on healthcare in the regions where they were tested and where they are continuing to be used. Doctors are saving time, public healthcare systems are saving money, and patients are receiving better coordinated and better quality care.
"At first, patients were surprised when they went to their local doctor's office and I was able to talk to them and see them over a computer, but surprise turned to satisfaction when they realised they wouldnât have to come to the hospital," says Dr Marco. "Barbastro, [where he works], is the only hospital for a widely distributed population. Many people live up to a hundred kilometres away, the winters are hard and the roads can be bad."
But saving patients the inconvenience of travelling to hospital for routine consultations, when physical check ups with a specialist are unnecessary, is not the only advantage. Because their general practitioner is present during the videoconference, they receive better coordinated care, with the GP and the specialist able to jointly study patient data, including scans and samples, over the telecounselling service.
"The benefits to all actors in the healthcare sector are enormous," notes Claudio Dario, the HEALTH OPTIMUM project coordinator at the Treviso Local Health Authority in the Veneto region of Italy.
The results are also quantifiable. In trials in Veneto, the telecounselling service has been used to link primary healthcare facilities to hospital neurology departments, allowing patients with head injuries to be accurately diagnosed by a specialist without having to be physically transferred to a hospital.
"This resulted in a 79 per cent reduction in the number of people being referred to a specialist facility," says Dario. "Before the deployment of this service 53 per cent of patients would be referred to a specialist, now just 11 per cent are because neurologists are able to diagnose the patient remotely and determine whether or not they need specialised care."
Not only does this save neurologists time and healthcare systems money, but the quality of care patients receive improves. "The reliability of the diagnosis is the same because neurologists have access to scans and data from the primary healthcare facility, and by not transferring patients who don't have to be there, they are not being subjected to unnecessary risks," Dario notes.
In the event that they do need to be referred to hospital and undergo surgery, the telecounselling system gives physicians access to information about the patient in advance and allows them to prepare more rapidly and efficiently. "By the time a patient arrives, the physicians are ready to put them on the operating table," the coordinator says.
Saving time, increasing efficiency and improving care are also the main benefits of HEALTH OPTIMUM's telelaboratory service.
Remote analysis equipment allows primary healthcare professionals to take samples of a patient's blood or urine, analyse the samples on the spot at the patients bedside or in their home and send the results wirelessly to a specialist over a secure Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).
"It normally takes a day or more for samples to be physically sent to a laboratory and the diagnosis returned to the patient's doctor. Telelaboratory provides results in 10 minutes," Dario says.
By proving the benefits of telemedicine solutions and deploying them in pioneering trials, the HEALTH OPTIMUM project has acted as a catalyst for the rollout of services to meet the challenges facing public healthcare systems. All the regions that participated in the trials â AragÃ³n in Spain, Veneto in Italy and Funen in Denmark â are continuing to employ and expand the services.
All of Veneto's health centres will be linked up within "one or two years," Dario says, while new projects are being planned by the HEALTH OPTIMUM consortium to extend the system to Sweden and Romania.
In AragÃ³n, there are also plans to take the system region wide, says Nieves Campillo, a representative of the regional government. "This has been a revolutionary project with important benefits and wide acceptance among the population," she says.
Such a growing interest in telemedicine reflects the very real problems facing Europe's public healthcare systems. The continent's ageing population will increase demand for healthcare in the future even as lower tax revenues due to a relative decline in the number of young people joining the workforce lead to budget cuts.
"Telemedicine gives health authorities the ability to do more with less," Dario notes.
Treviso Local Health Authority Ulss 9
Via Borgo Cavalli 42
Source: IST Results Portal