U.S. Department of State taps IBM to extend telemedicine's reach to remote regions of Pakistan

Washington D.C. 09 October 2008Munir is five years old, and he lives in a ruggedly remote, rural village in Northern Pakistan. For months, he has suffered from an aggressive and worsening skin lesion that, for want of medical care, has gone untreated. But now, his fortunes have changed for the better - as they have for a growing number of Pakistanis in the region. Today, as his relieved father would quickly tell you, Munir is on the road to full recovery.

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His story and hundreds like it are coming true because the U.S. Department of State and IBM are leading a public-private partnership to implement a high-technology telemedicine system in Pakistan. The partnership includes Wateen Telecom, Motorola Inc., Medweb Inc., USAID, the United States Department of Defense Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, the Pakistani Government, and Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi and District Headquarters Hospital in Attock. The team has helped to broaden and strengthen technical capabilities at a "hub" or a central co-ordinating hospital located at the Holy Family Hospital in the northern city of Rawalpindi, Punjab Province, with the "spoke" hospital with limited resources in District Attock.

The Pakistan Telemedicine Project is providing expanded medical care - pre-operative planning and follow-up; cardiac assessment; ophthalmology, dermatology, radiology, infectious disease, and peri-natal evaluations; and medical triage for traumas and acute illnesses. Another important aspect of the project is building capacity for health care services via virtual clinical grand rounds for medical education. In addition to assembling the public-private partnership, the United States Government contributed $220.000 to purchase state-of-the-art telemedicine equipment and services to operate the project.

Telemedicine delivers high quality medical services at the point of need and at an affordable cost, giving medical specialists and primary care givers timely text and medical image information via electronic communication. Imagine a typical cardiac ultrasound exam, which can be over a gigabyte of still images and video - transmitted just as easily and quickly as sending an e-mail. Medweb's patented software and off-the-shelf systems move information instead of people in order to provide health care consultation and education for both patients and care providers - health care that would otherwise be lacking or absent in remote locations without sufficient availability of medical specialists.

The partnership combines an Internet-access portal providing interactive collaboration tools such as secure e-mail, voice and video conferencing on a secure telemedicine network with advanced medical peripheral devices including portable ultrasound, digital cameras, EKG, stethoscope and X-ray machine. Most of the equipment was able to connect via a USB-port - turning laptops into virtual mobile clinics.

Moving information instead of people, telemedicine provides health care consultation and education via the Internet. "Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world - a nation of 173 million people", stated internationally recognized telemedicine expert and surgeon, Dr. Asif Zafar, of the Holy Family Hospital. "The goal of this project is to highlight technology's ability to overcome a significant health care imbalance - more than 75 percent of the population lives in rural areas but only 22 percent of the doctors work there."

Wateen Telecom and Motorola are the first companies in the world to roll out a cutting-edge WiMAX network on a nationwide scale. WiMAX enables wireless broadband access, allowing the exchange of massive amounts of information between the Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi and District Headquarters Hospital in Attock. The new system leverages the low-cost, ubiquitous power of the Internet to connect hub hospitals to what the team hopes will be an increasing number of spoke facilities in regions like Munir's. In turn, the system can access and engage the help of medical experts working at some of the most elite medical institutions in Pakistan and around the world. The system can also be used for other applications, such as on-line education.

"The Department of State, through the Pakistan Telemedicine Project, is demonstrating the transformative power of telecommunications technology under the United States Government's Digital Freedom Initiative, which seeks to encourage the spread of technology to the developing world", stated Ferial Saeed, Deputy United States Co-ordinator & Office Director for International Communications & Information Policy.

"Telecommunications technology not only underpins global economic growth and development but also can be used to promote both good government and good governance - from on-line medical and educational initiatives that deliver services and opportunities to people and places too often overlooked, to e-government programmes that increase the public trust. Under this public-private partnership, we hope to demonstrate how technology and Internet-based connectivity can significantly improve the quality of life for people in remote locations."

The Pakistan Telemedicine Project leverages IBM's and Medweb's experience from successfully implementing similar technology throughout the United States Government and a humanitarian telemedicine project on the world's most remote inhabited island, Tristan da Cunha. The island is located more than 1665 miles west of Cape Town, South Africa.

"With the proliferation and fusion of information, telecommunications and medical technologies, we can bring advanced health care services to people in remote geographies with compassion, efficiency and affordability", stated Dan Pelino, General Manager, IBM Global Healthcare & Life Sciences Industry. "The Pakistan Telemedicine Project brings together the strengths of both public and private partners to provide a global blueprint - one that can be replicated to enhance the lives of people worldwide by providing quality health care at the point of need."

The Public-Private Partnership Members are:

  • U.S. Department of State
  • IBM
  • Wateen Telecom
  • Medweb
  • USAID
  • Motorola
  • Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Center, United States Department of Defense
  • Embassy of Pakistan, Washington, D.C.
  • Holy Family Hospital
  • District Attock Hospital

Medweb's President and CEO, Dr. Pete Killcommons, who also traveled to Pakistan to assist in the project roll out and training, stated: "This project incorporates the very best of corporate and government partnership to exponentially expand access to quality health care in Pakistan. The creativity and ingenuity of the people in Pakistan have taken the project beyond what was originally planned and expanded the views of 'what is possible'. This project, and this model, demonstrate how by giving a little, much can be accomplished for the betterment of health care and quality of life worldwide."

The Pakistan Telemedicine Project extends the United States-Pakistan Strategic Partnership, which was formed in 2006. The broad, long-term partnership of the United States and Pakistani Governments reinforces the possibility of collaborative projects like this one, which has had the opportunity to transform and improve the lives of many Pakistanis.

More information about the humanitarian Tristan da Cunha telemedicine project can be found in the VMW December 2007 article World's most remote island gets advanced medical support from team led by IBM and Beacon Equity Partners.


Leslie Versweyveld

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