Telemedicine over IP Networks – Introduction & Applications

Tele-medicine is an application that IP Networks have successfully enabled. Tele-medicine not only takes affordable health care to rural areas and inaccessible places but also enables people in cities reduce their physical trips to hospitals by automating the process of health care monitoring. In this article, let us see how IP networks have enabled tele-medicine & the various components of a Tele-medicine system.

What is Tele-Medicine?

It is virtually impossible for doctors/ physicians to be everywhere. In fact, there is more concentration of doctors and physicians at super specialty hospitals in bigger cities and towns when compared to the number of doctors in the rural areas. Either the doctors need to travel for a long time, or as it mostly happens the patients travel a long distance to get quality health care.

So, Tele-medicine is a concept in health care which aims to reduce this disparity by connecting the doctors/ specialists in super specialty hospitals with patients/ general purpose doctors – practitioners in distant regions using Information Technology to monitor, detect and even give treatment (virtually) for certain common ailments without anyone having to physically travel across.

Tele-medicine can be useful not only for diagnosing patients from remote locations, but also for monitoring and diagnosis of patients from their homes & for automatic / periodic collection of patients vital signs in the hospital itself.

What are the Components of Tele-medicine?

There are three major components of Tele-medicine: Equipment to Capture the symptoms, IP Network to transmit the captured symptoms in digital format & Storage/ Access to the individual patient records. At times, even diagnosis and treatment of ailments from a remote location (using robotics, for example) are a part of Tele-medicine.

Software and Databases for centralized input/ storage of individual patient records in the electronic format, from any location is also an integral part of the Tele-medicine system. So, specialized software interfaces are created by Tele-medicine providers to enable the same. At times, the central database is directly updated by the devices used in Tele-medicine systems themselves and at other times, these values are manually input.

There maybe portable Tele-medicine stations (Like a suitcase) which contains most of the vital instruments needed for enabling Tele-medicine. Or, each instrument can be used separately, in case of individual diagnosis/ treatment.

Video Conferencing, IP Networks & Tele-Medicine:

A Video Conferencing System is an important part of most of the Tele-medicine systems. It enables the doctor and patient to see and talk to each other in real time using Special purpose Camera/ Microphone/ Speakers/ Display system,  etc. It enables the patients to talk directly about their symptoms and perhaps the possible causes, to the doctors who in-turn can evaluate the symptoms more carefully and request for specific tests to be carried out, based on the conversation. Some peripherals like Document Camera for example, enables a patient to show a sheet of written/ printed material to the doctor in the other end in real time.

An IP Wide Area Network within the various branches of the same hospital (Or Internet, in case of remote locations) is used by the doctors/ patients to communicate/ transfer digital records-images. This can happen in real time (for example, a video conference session) or deferred (for example, sending a digitized MRI Scan report to be analyzed by a specialist later on).

Various types of networks like ISDN, PRI/E1/T1, Broadband (Fixed line DSL/ Mobile Broadband), VSAT – Satellite Networks, Microwave Links, etc are used to connect the super-specialty hospitals with remote locations. And within the remote location, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Infra Red networks are used to automate the collection of vital health parameters.

Some Health Care applications enabled by Tele-medicine:

  • Electronic Stethoscopes can capture and transmit low-frequency sounds like heartbeat, lung sounds, etc while eliminating high frequency noise. These sounds can be amplified (for increased clarity) and digitized for transportation and storage over IP networks.
  • Electrocardiogram Recorder (ECG) can acquire, present and store cardiogram information in a digital format that can be connected to/ displayed on PC monitors and transferred over real time (if required) to remote locations using IP Networks. Some ECG recorders may even suggest automatic diagnosis information based on recognized input patterns.
  • Tele-Dermatology systems can accurately capture skin related information (pictures/ videos) using high resolution cameras with illumination and polarization lenses (to reduce surface reflection) and transmit these medical imaging files to the specialist over IP Networks for accurate examination.
  • Portable Blood Pressure/ Glucose Meter can take the readings of blood pressure, blood sugar level, pulse rate, etc in digital format. This information can be sent across either manually (by inputting the values in the medical software) or automatically if the device can connect to local systems (through a Wi-Fi network, for example) and then connecting to WAN Networks, through them.
  • Digital Thermometers can measure the body temperature (by looking at the IR energy radiated by the ear-drum, for example) and present it in digital format. This can be recorded manually in to the patient records by the local practitioner.
  • There are many more devices like Ear fluid monitors, detection of diabetics, COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Coronary ailments, Ultrasound, Angiography, MRI, Digital X-Ray, Radiography, etc that can capture health related information in digital format and transmit them over the IP Network for remote examination by specialist doctors in real time/ non-real time.

You could stay up to date on the various computer networking/ related IT technologies by subscribing to this blog with your email address in the sidebar box that says, ‘Get email updates when new articles are published’