On February 26th, 2020, Latin Americans ceased to be coronavirus spectators and began enduring its effects in their own flesh. Since then, a fragile and unprepared healthcare system for a pandemic has been exposed. As a result, initiatives such as telemedicine have gained strength and have been positioned as an alternative to traditional medicine.
Telemedicine is an agile, necessary, and innovative response for this pandemic, but what can be done with telemedicine? Teleconsulting – that is, long-distance consultations – are just the tip of the iceberg of this new healthcare field. A patient’s analysis, remote monitoring of emergency rooms or homes, reminding patients when to take medicine, sending educational material about certain disease, or even artificial intelligence that detects diseases, can be implemented.
Then, some questions arise: is telemedicine being used in Latin America? If not being used, what is it being used for? Does it have any benefits in treating coronavirus? To answer these questions, the first thing is to know the situation in the region.
What is going on in Latin America?
There are around 40,000 coronavirus cases in the region, in a population of 620 million. Currently, the region has 25% of the world’s hospitals, however, these are not enough and are concentrated only in large cities, as explained by Guillaume Corpart -CEO, Global Health Intelligence (GHI)- in a virtual forum held on April 23rd on telemedicine implementation in Latin America.
Additionally, Corpart said the average number of beds per hospital is low: 46 beds per hospital, while in the United States the average is 162 beds per hospital. Due to this sort of situations, healthcare systems are under pressure and stress from coronavirus.
According to Guillaume Corpart, actual cases in Latin America are much more than those reported in official numbers. This is because governments were unprepared to receive a pandemic, reflected in the fact that no country of the region purchased sufficient tests to detect the virus. These are being taken only in hospitals, but the reality is that many citizens do not have access to them, so if they are infected with COVID-19, they will ignore they have the virus. In addition, people who die outside hospitals are not being tested, “cases can be 10 to 20 times larger than those officially reported,” Corpart concludes.
Telemedicine a benefit for all
This tool lowers healthcare system costs by increasing the number of patients who can access medical consulting, improves healthcare workforce productivity, and delivers better clinical outcomes.
Today, although the use of telemedicine in Latin America has been mainly in public hospitals, it is not yet a common way of practicing medicine. However, there are examples of good practices and uses, according to Gustavo Menéndez – Telemedicine Director, Cisco- “practice medicine with technology is less expensive and easier than ever”.
As for accessibility, telemedicine is allowing doctors to have presence in hard-to-reach places (such as rural areas) or places where patients (such as prisons) are not allowed to leave. Thus, suspicious cases can be inspected in the distance and, as the individual is not allowed to move, possible infections are avoided. Similarly, patients who are halfway of a non-coronavirus treatment, have continued receiving the same from their homes.
On the other hand, productivity of healthcare personnel has increased as it is a tool that “adds value to traditional medicine and does not replace it”, explains Cynthia LeRouge, telemedicine expert. An example is that doctors, through telemedicine, have reduced physical contact with patients, which means less likeliness of being infected. Gustavo Menéndez, Cisco’s Telemedicine Director, said that productivity can improve because those doctors who are not in the emergency rooms, can take weight off them by being, through telemedicine, available for other types of consultations.
Last of all, telemedicine produces better results, mainly because virus transmission slows down when it is not necessary going to a hospital. In addition, through this tool you can find significant trends among patients, as the entire information from all hospitals enters the same system. Likewise, Cynthia LeRouge, telemedicine expert, notes that much more specialized medicine can be used because the specialist can be in many places at the same time.
Disasters and pandemics place unique challenges on the healthcare system, and while telemedicine will not solve all, it is created to operate in complex scenarios. The clearest result of the virus will be making telemedicine a fundamental player in medicine and a normal element of any post-coronavirus consultation.
Published on 3rd June