ATA International Forum profiles telemedicine projects in Latin America

By Eric Wicklund
07:47 PM
The Sunday session highlights the Lopez Family Foundation's humanitarian work to bring telehealth to kids in Puerto Rico and Panama.

The power and potential of global telemedicine was put on display Sunday afternoon at the American Telemedicine Association's International Telemedicine Forum.

Before a packed conference room, physicians with the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles explained how a non-profit established by international entertainer Jennifer Lopez is helping to bring telemedicine consultations to children in Puerto Rico and Panama and education services via video to physicians in those countries.

For their efforts, Lopez and The Lopez Family Foundation were named winners of the inaugural ATA Humanitarian Award, which was unveiled during Sunday's kickoff of the 18th Annual International Meeting & Trade Show in Austin, Texas. Lopez had accepted the award at an event earlier this year in Los Angeles, and an interview with her and ATA CEO Jonathan Linkous was played Sunday evening.

During the international meeting earlier that day, Stuart E. Siegel, MD, of CHLA's Center for International Health, and Silvio Vega, MD, medical director of the Panamanian Telemedicine and Telehealth Program, outlined how the Lopez Family Foundation had helped establish telemedicine connections, first in Puerto Rico, and later in Panama.

Siegel said the foundation was interested first in developing clinics or "on-the-ground programs," but he convinced them to take a look at telemedicine.

In Puerto Rico, Siegel said, where 38 percent of all children are on the region's version of Medicare, there is only one pediatric geneticist on the entire island, leading to wait times of one to two years. CHLA was able to set up a monthly tele-genetics clinic, he said, that is able to see, on average, four families per session, and plans are in the works to launch more sessions.

Based on that success in Puerto Rico, Siegel said, the Lopez Family Foundation and CHLA contacted Vega, who'd developed a pediatric telemedicine program through the University of Arizona and Panama's Ministry of Health. The Lopez Family Foundation visited Panama in 2010, he said, and by 2012 the telemedicine program was up and running in three of the country's major pediatric hospitals.

According to Vega, Panama, with a population of 3.2 million (10 percent of which is Indian), sees a distinct drop in healthcare quality outside of Panama City, so there's a strong need to push telemedicine services into the rural sections of the country. Aside from treating patients through video consults, he said the network is vital in bringing education to physicians.

Both Siegel and Vega said it's important to collaborate with local physicians, rather than just give them telemedicine services, so that they learn to become more sufficient. That theme was picked up by Dale Alverson, a former ATA president and medical director of the Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, who said telemedicine is designed to enhance local healthcare services, not replace them.

While the program is taking root in Puerto Rico and Panama, no one was discounting that it might expand. Todd Hovey, managing director of the Lopez Family Foundation, said the group is open to more projects that can improve healthcare outcomes for children in remote regions of Latin America, as long as they can find willing partners.

"We look for growth together with others," he said.