Telemedicine ‘only way’ for Family Islands

outcomes and cost-effective care to remote Family Island communities, a leading doctor has stated, although he expressed concern over whether this nation’s education system was “gearing” students to exploit job opportunities in this field.

Dr Robin Roberts, a urologist and director of the University of West Indies (UWI) Nassau-based School of Clinical Medicine and Research, expressing support for the Bahamas Telecommunications Company’s (BTC) privatisation by an international telecoms provider who had the technology and system reliability to provide what was required, said telemedicine would “take us quantum leaps” forward in terms of providing better healthcare outcomes.

Explaining that it was “a waste” in terms of both skills and costs to station high-trained Bahamian medical specialists on Family Islands with small populations, Dr Roberts said telemedicine – the ability to diagnose, videoconference, assess x-rays, slides and other medical samples online via computer or the phone – was the only viable alternative solution.

“It is the only way we will be able to do that,” Dr Roberts said of providing quality healthcare in the Family Islands. “It is physically impossible for us to do it there, and it is not cost effective, because the population is so small.

“It is a total waste of my skills and investment in me to station me in Exuma to provide neurological care on an island of 10,000 people. I need at least 50,000 people to maintain my skills.”

The solution, he added, was “to give access to me” through providing telemedicine through an enhanced telecommunications capability. Nurses stationed in the Family Islands could, via computer, conduct the necessary tests and send the results back to a Nassau-based specialist who, in turn, would diagnose them and recommend the best course of treatment without having to travel to see the patient.

“Telemedicine will take us quantum leaps forward in terms of better outcomes. It’s our solution in healthcare,” Dr Roberts said.

Yet while there had been much talk about telemedicine as a key part of Bahamian healthcare, to date, Dr Roberts said: “We are far behind. It’s happening at breakneck speed in developing countries, and in the Bahamas, although we’re moving, we’re not moving as fast. We are already behind, and need to move at that pace.”

For telemedicine and its various offshoots to succeed in the Bahamas, Dr Roberts said access to “accurate information at all times” via a reliable technology platform was critical. He added that in achieving this, an international company such as Cable & Wireless (LIME), which “has the expertise and capacity to do that, can only be to our advantage”.

David Shaw, LIME’s chief executive, previously told Tribune Business that in Panama the company’s technology allowed for remote breast cancer screening, enabling women in distant rural areas to access the service without having to travel to the capital.

This, he added, could prove useful in the Family Islands, with LIME taking its community services as seriously as the provision of data.

Telemedicine held great possibilities for job growth in the Bahamas, Dr Roberts said, given that Bahamians were generally technology savvy. The Public Hospitals Authority (PHA), he added, had one of the top information technology education units within its purview.

However, Dr Roberts expressed caution in terms of how many Bahamian jobs could be created by an expanding telemedicine industry because the country’s education system was not preparing graduates for the many jobs that existed currently in the healthcare system.

While the focus had traditionally been on doctors, nurses and dentists, Dr Roberts said there were more than 100 job categories outside these careers in the allied healthcare professions. In the US, these professions were projected to be the fastest growing segment of that nation’s economy over the next five years, adding five million jobs, while eight of the top 20 professions fell into this field.

Yet Dr Roberts said half the staff who worked at Doctors Hospital were non-Bahamians, and the majority of specialists who worked in departments such as radiology were foreigners, too.

“Why don’t we have more Bahamians? Our education system is not geared towards producing what we need,” Dr Roberts said. “We just haven’t geared our education system for it.”

NEIL HARTNELL
The Tribune

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