ATA conference kicks off with global ambitions

By Eric Wicklund
07:50 AM

Today San Antonio, tomorrow the world?

The American Telemedicine Association’s 15th Annual Meeting and Exposition kicked off Sunday with an expansive attitude, as ATA officials welcomed more than 3,000 registrants representing at least 35 countries to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas.

“Never has there been greater interest in telehealth,” said Karen Rheuban, the ATA’s president and medical director of the University of Virginia’s Office of Telemedicine.

She pointed out that the recent passage of healthcare reform and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, along with recent overtures made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to improve relations with the ATA, have created an “understanding and receptive audience” to telehealth services in the United States and abroad.

In an international telemedicine forum held just prior to the ATA’s opening session Sunday afternoon, ATA officials emphasized that their work stretches far beyond the U.S. borders.

“Hardly a health issue that we address isn’t a global issue,” said Dale Alverson, medical director for the Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences and the ATA’s president-elect.

“We’re just beginning to see the internationalization of healthcare,” added Jonathan Linkous, the ATA’s chief executive officer.

That activity is being spurred, ATA members say, by the cellphone. David Aylward, executive director of the mHealth Alliance, pointed out that cellphones are used the world over by billions of people, and are being turned into useful devices by the development of wireless networks and new mobile applications.

“What we’re looking for now is meaningful use of these devices,” he said.

Aylward also cautioned the ATA’s members to look beyond the device and consider the solution. “Having a really cool wireless ultrasound is not going to take off on its own,” he said, but needs companion technology and services – a so-called “clinic in a box” – to make it work as a telehealth service.

Pramod Gaur, vice president of telehealth for the UnitedHealth Group and chairman of the ATA’s International Special Interest Group, predicted that cellular technologies would soon be leapfrogging over the world’s telecommunications network. He urged ATA members to consider public-private partnerships and to use the cellphone to reach everyone in need of healthcare.

Update on Haiti

International telemedicine forum members were then given an update on telemedicine efforts in Haiti, still reeling from the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed close to 200,000 and displaced more than 3 million people. Hillary Critchley, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant and adviser to U.S. telemedicine efforts in Haiti, said more than 90 percent of all Haitians own a cellphone – a larger percentage than those owning laptops, desktop computers or landlines.

Critchley said telemedicine efforts undertaken through cellular phone services have helped disaster relief officials raise donations, send out aftershock alerts, coordinate emergency response teams, develop missing- and found-person databases and collect other data through the iPhone and Twitter.

That type of innovation carried through to Sunday’s opening session, where Bernard Harris Jr., the ATA’s vice president and ATA 2010 Program chairman, pointed out a show floor filled with more than 180 exhibitors, covering twice the space of last year’s show floor.

Harris was followed by Major General James K. Gilman, Commanding General of the U.S. Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command and Fort Detrick, who detailed the military’s use of telehealth in its many overseas missions since the Spanish-American War.

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