BARCELONA – Telemedicine has gone far beyond telephone conferences: new technologies allow doctors to monitor blood pressure and other vital signs – even x-rays – and help in operations miles away.
Wireless technology is driving "health outside clinics and hospitals," said Pamela Spence, Ernst & Young's health sciences market leader, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
And this is facilitating delivery in remote areas, she added.
Participants at the largest global annual event in the mobile phone industry discussed how telemedicine is doing more than just connecting doctors and patients to a video or voice call.
A telemedicine booth developed by the French company Health for Humanity (H4D) allows a doctor hundreds of kilometers away from a patient to measure their pulse rate, temperature and oxygen level in the blood.
The cabin – dubbed the Consult Station – is also equipped with tools that allow the doctor to perform X-ray examinations and audition.
Dozens of Consultation Stations have already been installed in France, Italy and Portugal and H4D is conducting pilot projects in Canada, the United States, the Philippines and Dubai.
But training doctors on how to conduct a clinical examination remotely is "crucial" to service success, said the founder and chairman of HD4, Franck Baudino. They have to learn how to guide the patient during the process.
Doctors were initially wary of the idea of telemedicine booths when the company was founded in 2008 but have since become more demanding for them, he added.
"Ten years ago, people looked at me as if I were an alien," said Baudino, a French doctor working in remote African communities.
"Today people still think we are avant-garde, but the big difference is that 10 years ago we were talking about the future, today it's systems that are already being used."
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Market research firm Forrester predicts there will be more virtual visits to health care providers in the United States than personal visits by the end of 2020.
"Up to this point, there has been relatively slow growth in the telemedicine market," said Jeff Becker, IT specialist at Forrester.
"We think this has been proven in those early years and that we will see widespread adoption."
The arrival of 5G wireless networks, which telecoms operators are starting to launch, opens up new possibilities for telemedicine – such as surgeries performed by remotely controlled robots.
The Spanish doctor Antonio de Lacy realized the first telemonitorizada operation of 5G of energy of the world in Wednesday of the fair of Barcelona.
He provided real-time guidance through a 5G video link to a surgical team operating on a patient with an intestinal tumor about 5 kilometers (3 miles) away at the Hospital Clinic.
"This is the first step in achieving our dream, which is to do remote operations in the near future," Lacy said.
Doctors have performed surgeries in the past using wireless networks.
What the 5G does is increase the quality and definition of the image, crucial for medical teams to make decisions with as much information as possible and reduce the risk of errors.
These next-level mobile networks also greatly reduce latency – the time it takes to get a response to the information you send – from wireless networks. This means that images and data are transmitted almost instantaneously.
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Telemedicine may be especially important in developing countries.
Gifted Mom, a text messaging and app service, offers women rural communities out of the way through the free health councils of Cameroon.
By 2020, it expects to reduce by at least 70% the number of women dying during childbirth in the African country.
Even though many patients still feel more comfortable being treated face-to-face, the use of telemedicine "will definitely" continue, said Michael Barnett, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, who studied the new techniques.
"The question is where it will stabilize," he added. "The use is still quite unusual, so there's still plenty of room to grow."