Satellite: just what the doctor ordered

Washington DC 24 April 2003Telemedicine broadly defined includes everything from telediagnosis, remote consultation, and nursing, as well as remote education and medical information services such as custom-information retrieval via a wide area telecommunications network. As a result, telemedicine is playing an increasingly important role in the health care industry for the advancement of patient health and treatment.

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For patients in remote areas, access to specialists can be limited due to cost and distance concerns, and therefore, telemedicine becomes the only means by which these patients are able to gain access to the medical expertise they require.

In the United States, there have been various successful pilot programmes conducted throughout the country, but no national telemedicine network has been established. U.S. health care officials need to look globally to find good examples of telemedicine networks, which can serve as viable examples for a domestic US solution.

In Asia, China has pushed technology developers and health practitioners alike to find new ways to reach the patient population spread out across this vast country. This dedication to improve access to health care and relevant health information has resulted in the development of a nationwide on-line medical-education network by the China Satellite Sanitation Science & Technology Educational Network (China SS Network) for telemedicine and distance learning.

The China SS Network encompasses a wide variety of technology disciplines including satellite communications, LAN-level networking hardware and software technology, multimedia and digital-video encoding solutions, to deliver high-quality, real-time distance learning to remote users. Integrated with television, interactive videoconference and Internet technologies, the deployment represents the most advanced, multi-application, comprehensive remote teaching system ever experienced in China. With the rugged terrain and infrastructure void in various areas, this network would not have been possible without satellite.

The China SS Network enables numerous important services, including an interdisciplinary programme for practitioners, advanced training for rural clinicians, and technical training for nurses, midwives and administrative staff. In addition, distance learning is provided for secondary, tertiary and other post-graduate research programmes.

The China SS Network offers its users myriad ways to access the information through TV broadcasts, computer and videoconferences, as well as the World Wide Web:

  • Broadcast Service: students can view MPEG1/MPEG2 coded/decoded programmes either via television or PC;
  • Interactive Video Communication: students can study interactively through a TV via satellite system and take part in videoconferences;
  • Interactive Audio Communication: students can listen to programmes on computer and contact teachers by via IP networks;
  • Asynchronous VoD Service: students can download educational programmes to any of their local servers for VoD (Video-on-Demand);
  • Learning through Internet: students can obtain courses or other useful information from Web sites and access educational services at any time.

What begun as a pilot project in the Zhejiang province in 2000, has now been extended into 10 additional provinces. The network is expected to be operational in Beijing, Zhejing, Hunan, Hebei, Xinjiang, Harbin and Shenzhen by mid-2003.

Currently, the China SS Network is focused on expanding its services still further in the telemedicine and distance learning sectors, with a goal of reaching more than 1 million professionals via more than 200 course programmes each year. With the support of Chinese officials, the network will achieve its final configuration of one main station, 15 broadcast interactive stations, 300 interactive stations, and 20.000 receiving terminals, and realise its goal of serving more than 5,5 million users in 34 provinces and municipalities by 2006.

The combination of China's expansive physical geography, limited transportation infrastructure and immense size of its population, suggests that telemedicine and distance learning will continue to be important services for improving the quality of life for the common people. Satellite technology, with its ability to serve large numbers of users dispersed over a broad variety of physical locations, may well be the engine that drives further expansion of these vital services.

Perhaps this innovative use of satellite technology in China for telemedicine and distance learning will serve as a forerunner for even greater achievements elsewhere in the world.


Matthew Mohebbi, senior vice president Hughes Network Systems

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