Clinics are staffed by health workers who measure vital signs, such as blood pressure and heart rate, and transmit the information to a doctor in a nearby city. Local workers also run diagnostic tests, such as cholesterol or pregnancy tests; the results are relayed to the physician and recorded in the patient’s electronic health record. Eventually, Hammond hopes to enlist government or other aid to fund care for those who can’t afford the cost of an appointment.
Telemedicine is well suited to address two major challenges confronting health-care delivery in India: a growing population and a shortage of physicians. “Many [doctors] have gone abroad, and those who are here don’t want to go to remote villages,” says Sunita Maheshwari, a physician and cofounder of Teleradiology Solutions, an outsourcing company whose on-call doctors analyze radiology images for hospitals in India and other countries. “Telemedicine would address such a gap.”
Some previous efforts to expand telemedicine in India have stumbled, including a 2005 plan by the national government to budget funds for 50 facilities. “Practically speaking, they never took off,” says Maheshwari. She says that effort foundered because of unreliable satellite connections, lack of inexpensive broadband access, and too little practical know-how on the ground. Now, as broadband costs have dropped and reliable wireless communication has penetrated more and more of the country, chances are better that telemedicine will succeed.
Indian patients have been amazingly quick to accept telemedicine, says Maheshwari. Radiologists with her company provide consultations over the Internet for free clinics in northern India built by Cisco Systems. “We see about 20 patients a day,” she says. “Now everyone wants a doctor in Bangalore.”