One area in which digital progress is of vital (literally) importance, is healthcare. With the lack of medical care in rural areas resulting from the exodus of doctors, telemedicine offers practical, effective solutions to make healthcare accessible to everyone as well as improving patient care: monitors, sensors, medical videoconferencing, high-precision cameras, etc.
Pierre Simon, president of the French Telemedicine Society and physician at the Saint Brieuc Hospital for 32 years, and Nicolas Vaillant, Director of Clinifit, a company that designs and sells digital hospital equipment, gave us their insights on healthcare in the third millennium. Both are working towards a common goal: empowering everyone in the healthcare process from doctors to patients.
Healthcare: a fundamental right
Telemedicine is a key to one of the fundamental rights to which the World Health Organization (WHO is committed: universal access to healthcare. Today, demographic growth and the ageing population are increasing the need for medical treatment, yet for people living in remote areas, access to healthcare is becoming increasingly difficult. Digital technology and telemedicine are thus effective ways of addressing the issue of “medical deserts”, which currently affects some two million people in France. Pierre Simon explains:
“There are medical deserts in Canada, Norway and Australia, and all these countries have found solutions for the problem. France could follow suit by using telemedicine to treat patients remotely and is already progressing well in this field.”
Since 2010, the French government has been focusing on developing telemedicine to provide healthcare to the country’s more remote areas. It’s a question of democracy: all citizens are entitled to healthcare, irrespective of their origins, income, or where they live.
To that end, on 28 February this year, the then Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, launched a scheme to modernise hospitals and medical practices. Since July, 18 regions have received €1.5 billion as part of the “Digital Healthcare” programme. Nicolas Vaillant believes this revolution could significantly improve healthcare and hospital stays.
Bringing hospitals into the digital age
“In both our personal and working life, digital is part of everyday life, and yet hospitals are still lagging behind where technology is concerned,” says the director of Clinifit. “So we’re trying to introduce the same digital infrastructures and technologies to make the hospital staff’s job easier, or enable patients to continue working whilst in hospital. Recently, for example, a mother was able to monitor the treatment of her baby who was in the neonatal department, in a sterile room, whilst she was in the recovery rom.”
Nicolas Vaillant acknowledges that whilst there is nothing new about the technology in itself (videoconferencing, high-precision cameras, high-definition screens, energy self-sufficient tools), the way they are now being used in hospitals is truly innovative – but the infrastructure of course has to be 100% reliable:
“You need infrastructures such as fibre optics that enable data to be processed quickly. Data security is a major issue: where healthcare data is concerned, we are faced with a number of legal restrictions to protect patients.”
Compliance with data protection legislation is a major priority for the president of the French Telemedicine Society, Pierre Simon, which is why he is particularly rigorous in his choice of partners:
“Remote consultation, i.e. whereby a doctor examines the patient via a monitor, requires high-resolution images, so bandwidth of at least 2 megabits per second to send the data and digital patient records in real time. For this we need a network provider that specialises in digital technology for the healthcare sector and offers reliable, secure bandwidth.”
In addition to the infrastructure itself, such a system also requires giving support and assistance to the medical staff:
“However good the technology is, we help the staff in order to create new uses which can save time and thus save lives.”
Empowering the patient: a digital reality
Doctors watching operation when they are thousands of kilometres away from the operating theatre, carrying out an ultrasound on a device no bigger than a smartphone in the middle of the countryside, sharing test results with experts on the other side of the world: thanks to telemedicine, this is no longer the stuff of science fiction: Pierre Simon has been experimenting with it for some fifteen years:
“As a nephrologist, I had set up a remote dialysis system between mainland France and the islands of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon in the Atlantic Ocean. That way I could read the information sent from an artificial kidney through a centralised platform and thus monitor the whole process.”
The patients, meanwhile, are increasingly willing to test such methods and benefit from what digital technology has to offer. Equipping hospitals with state-of-the-art technology thus fulfils a very real need for more patient empowerment:
“We are seeing a shift in the patient/carer relationship: the patient now has the tools to take control of his/her healthcare and discuss it with the doctor,” says Nicolas Vaillant. “They now know how to read health reports or at least how to find the information they need to do so, and we have to adapt to this change.”
These tools not only empower the patient but relieve the medical staff of certain tasks, leaving them free to devote more time to people who need them the most, such as the elderly, particularly those living alone and in isolated areas. Pierre Simon continues:
“Close remote patient monitoring can be carried out by a nurse, who agrees with the patient and doctor on an alert threshold above which they need to intervene directly. Remote coaching provides guidance and assistance for these people, for example in the event of a patient having an accident at home.”
The elderly, new-born babies, mothers and healthcare professionals: telemedicine is bringing healthcare into a new age. Now it’s time to step up the process and make sure everyone can benefit from it.