Wellness via Web

Print edition : May 18, 2007

Delegates try out the Mercury telemedicine tool at the World Summit of the Information Society in Tunis, the Tunisian capital.-

A cost-effective telemedicine solution that harnesses the Web has found takers in many Indian States and in African countries.

C-DAC's technology initiatives for the health sector date back to the early 1990s. It has seen the creation of hospital management systems like "e-Sushrut" and "Tejhas", a software suite for oncology as well as information systems for health administrators that were developed against specific requirements. But one of its most recent challenges - the crafting of an affordable, ubiquitous platform to deliver medical services in regions that might be otherwise difficult to reach and service - has been widely welcomed. It has seen quick acceptance and deployment both in India and abroad.

It is called Mercury - and it harnesses the Internet as the communication backbone to link patients to hospitals and to experts who might well be found on another continent.

This correspondent saw a dramatic illustration of Mercury's strength and potential at the second World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia, where it was unveiled for the first time two years ago. A real-time collaboration between a doctor at the bedside of a patient in a primary health centre in Kannur (Kerala) and an oncologist at the Regional Cancer Centre in Thiruvananthapuram could be monitored live in the Tunisian capital - on a PC connected to the Internet.

Many telemedicine solutions harness dedicated resources - like a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) connecting to a satellite communication channel. But C-DAC's Mercury seems to have hit the `sweet spot' that makes such solutions viable in the Indian context, where communication infrastructure is the first hurdle. It harnesses the increasing ubiquity and compelling economics of an "always-on" Internet connection.

Other delegates who witnessed the `demo' in Tunis were sufficiently excited to ask if Mercury could be deployed in their own countries. And thanks to the initiative of President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who visited the African continent a few months later, Ethiopia became the first beneficiary of Mercury outside India. A patient centre at the Black Lion Hospital in the Ethiopian capital Addis-Ababa and a remote telemedicine centre at Nekempte (Ethiopia) have already gone `online' and are connected via Internet to the Secondary Telemedicine Referral Centre at the Care Hospital, Hyderabad back in India. It was a project executed by Telecommunications Consultants (India) Ltd or TCIL, the Indian government's agency for the execution of communication-intensive projects.

Mercury has also proved popular in India's remote northeastern States and in Kerala, explains Gaur Sundar, who steers C-DAC's medical informatics projects at Pune. One network links the Civil Hospital, Aizawl (Mizoram) and the Namchi District Hospital (Sikkim) to the Apollo Indraprastha Hospital, New Delhi.

In Kerala, the Mercury network is being used as a collaborative tool for oncology. Three renowned medical institutions in the State capital - the Medical College Hospital (MCH), the Regional Cancer Centre and the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medial Sciences and Technology - are networked with five Taluk-level hospitals at Wayanad, Mavelikkara, Neyyattinkara, Quilandy and Malappuram.

In April 2007, C-DAC assisted MCH Thiruvananthapuram to become the first fully computerised hospital in Kerala - using a system fuelled by 80 computers and 250 nodes for service delivery. In the pipeline are touch-screen kiosks for the visiting public and hand-held e-note-taking devices for doctors and nurses.

In recent months, Tamil Nadu, too, has taken steps to deploy Mercury. When the Tamil Nadu Telemedicine Project is completed, it will link the Government Royapettah Hospital, Chennai with six government headquarter hospitals at Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri, Udhagamandalam (Ooty), and Rameswaram.

Centres in North India as far apart as Delhi, Rohtak, Lucknow, Cuttack and Shimla have also come on the telemedicine network, which is fuelling collaboration between major hospitals in these cities.

Today, C-DAC's centres in Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Mohali (near Chandigarh) and Noida (near Delhi) help harness the Internet to create a truly nationwide health delivery system.

Tomorrow, they plan to address more challenges: a pan-Africa health network; contactless, smart cards for patient health information; interactive Web portals for State health departments; and online interfaces for medical college hospitals.

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