Thursday, December 9, 2010

Global Opportunities for Telemedicine

Over the past year ATA has increased its presence and its role internationally. This reflects the transformation of both the market and practice of telemedicine. The mission of ATA is to be an advocate and a voice for telemedicine with government and other bodies, provide education, promote research and establish standards. This remains the priority and core responsibility of the organization. However, as telecommunications breaks through the walls of health institutions, crosses the barriers of distance and goes across state lines, so too is telemedicine starting to traverse international boundaries. The United States is not alone in deploying telemedicine. In fact, other countries have been investing millions of dollars in the development of telemedicine services and networks. Their knowledge and experience are critical to the growth of telemedicine everywhere.

ATA’s corporate, institutional and individual members now come from 50 countries. Our meeting is truly international in attendance and with the presentations. The interests of many of ATA’s U.S.-based members are international. So it is no surprise that one of the priorities of ATA’s current President, Dr. Dale Alverson has been to look at opportunities for ATA to build international bridges.

I am writing this from Xiamen, China where, as a guest of the China Ministry of Health, I addressed the Ministry’s annual conference on health information technology. I am a lucky substitute for ATA Past President Karen Rheuban who had a scheduling conflict. There are over 1,300 people in attendance and include health administrators from China’s 31 provinces as well as from the national government, major hospitals, and leading technology vendors. China is starting to invest billions of dollars in improving health care delivery to its 1.9 billion people and the national government is playing a much stronger role. At the meeting, the China Ministry of Health revealed its next 5 year plan for health care which includes building a nationwide broadband backbone to support healthcare delivery including telemedicine.

A month ago, four of us representing ATA were invited to attend and speak at a health care conference sponsored by the Tehran University Medical School in Iran. Despite the current political differences between the U.S. and Iran, it is clear that there is a real and sincere interest to learn from each other about ways to use telemedicine to provide services to the most in need. The visit was an important opportunity to start to build bridges with the health providers in that nation.

These are not isolated activities. Many ATA board members work extensively with other countries providing technical assistance and providing direct health services using telemedicine. Over the past year, ATA President Alverson has traveled to Korea, India and Nepal to speak about his experiences in deploying telemedicine in New Mexico and has been working in Ecuador to improve their use of remote care. ATA has established a Virtual International Resource Center and have started developing Memorandums of Agreements with various organizations outside of the U.S. We have two international Chapters and an International Special Interest Group.

So where do we go from here? That is a question that will be discussed by the board of ATA as well as our members in the year ahead. We remain the American Telemedicine Association but it is clear that ATA has become international already and cannot ignore the developments in the world around us. It is important to seize the opportunity to learn and work with the global community as we all seek to use telecommunications to improve the healthcare of mankind.