European Space Agency claims telemedicine via satellite to be health care's new frontier

Paris 27 January 2005The European Space Agency has decided to prepare the ground for a telemedicine programme to be presented at the next ESA Ministerial Conference. This is in response to the need to further tailor support for the development of telemedicine via satellite to comply with the key priorities of the health care system. Telemedicine is health care's new frontier, a means of facilitating the distribution of human resources and professional competences. It can speed up diagnosis and therapeutic care delivery and allow peripheral and primary health care providers to receive continuous assistance from specialised centres.

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The aim of the European Space Agency's initiative is to set up a programmatic framework able to host research, development and pilot utilisation activities in the field of telemedicine via satellite. To this end, a Telemedicine Working Group has been set up, composed mainly of users including health professionals and patients' representatives.

The results from this Working Group are outlined in the publication "Opportunities and Challenges of eHealth and Telemedicine via Satellite", which aims to promote the rationale of a user-driven approach in this application field of paramount importance to the well-being of mankind.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has reached a sufficient degree of maturity that it is now possible to envisage setting up a virtual hospital in a patient's home, obtaining real-time teleconsulting and diagnosis from a remote location and transmitting clinical data and multimedia medical content from one location to a large number of geographically dispersed locations.

In order to improve the adoption and effectiveness of telemedicine, advanced ICT infrastructures are needed that would guarantee access, availability and quality of service in the required locations. Satellite communications, accessible from virtually any location and capable of instantly activating communication channels adapted to specific needs, could prove an important factor driving the development of telemedicine.

Since the mid '90s, a number of activities have been initiated in Europe by national and international organisations with the purpose of demonstrating and promoting the use of satcom in the field of telemedicine. To a large extent, such pre-competitive activities were begun by consortia composed of the telecom industry, health care organisations and potential service providers, leading to a constellation of small and medium-sized exploratory projects. Through such projects it has been possible to demonstrate the technical feasibility of various satellite-based telemedicine systems and to raise awareness among potential users.

At present the use of satellite-based ICT for telemedicine is gradually moving from an exploratory phase towards a more stable and operational profile, in which integration into the existing health care system and the rapid attainment of self-sustainability are essential preconditions for success.

The publication "Opportunities and Challenges of eHealth and Telemedicine via Satellite" can be consulted at the European Space Agency Web site.


Leslie Versweyveld

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