Is There a Mobile in the House? Practising Medicine from a Distance Is Far from the Norm, but It Is Part of the Future. (New Media Awards)

Article excerpt

The Lancet once hosted a debate about the price of hay. In an age when patients expected doctors to visit, the pony-trap was as essential a medical tool as the stethoscope. In 2001, a gallbladder operation carried out by robot in France was directed by surgeons in New York. Practising medicine at a distance is still far from the norm, but applications to facilitate it are increasing rapidly. On the website of the United States National Library of Medicine, the index includes 1,500 papers published on the subject of telemedicine in the past two years alone. The term "telemedicine" covers a mass of different ideas, but this year's New Media Awards suggests that discussion of one of them--mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other wireless devices - is timely.

In last year's NShealth supplement (24 June), I looked at the pros and cons of patients having ready access to general medical information via the internet. Wireless applications offer the same benefits, but also enable patients to send clinical information on themselves to doctors, who can then provide feedback remotely but quickly, avoiding the potentially long wait for a face-to-face appointment. Such technology also allows doctors to send information to each other: last month, a physician announced that X-ray images could be transmitted using picture-messaging.

In a recent survey of Norwegian cancer patients and their relatives, less than one-third of respondents had surfed the net in search of medical information, but almost two-thirds suggested that e-mail and wireless technology be used in communications between them and the hospital. But isn't this just another luxury- an added advantage for those who have access to and are comfortable with the latest technology, but not something to be fully integrated into a national health service? That was certainly my view, until Dr John Pollard of University College London offered a different perspective. The proportion of the population over the age of 60 is projected to be 50 per cent greater by 2025 than it is now. Demographic trends dictate that medical staff and other carers focus even more on those in need. There will be increasing reliance on this technology, Pollard thinks, "in spite of statements to the effect that we are going to use it merely to augment personal intervention". …