An Orthopedic Telemedicine Portal Brings Specialist Treatment to Remote Islands

There's orthopedic telemedicine portal is on the island with the Callanish standing stones.

The ancient stone circles on the Isle of Lewis, one of the islands in the Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s northeast coast, draw much of their mystique from the remoteness of their location. The Callanish Standing Stones, thousands of years old, rise in ruin amid a sprawling landscape devoid of obvious signs of modernity.

If you’re a tourist to the isle, that remoteness lends the site an air of untouched history.

If you live there, that same remoteness must be a burden.

Small, isolated communities such as the Isle of Lewis generally struggle to support advanced infrastructure due to their limited populations. There are schools, banks, and hospitals on the Hebrides, but there isn’t enough traffic to justify specialized services.

That’s why the home of the 5,000-year-old Callanish Standing Stones is also the location of an orthopedic telemedicine portal.

An Orthopedic Telemedicine Portal

An orthopedic telemedicine portal is essentially a fancy name for a doctor with a webcam. More specifically, it’s an orthopedic specialist with a webcam, and the service provided to the people of the Isle of Lewis has been used by only a dozen or so patients. The service is offered at the island’s Western Isles Hospital to provide an instant link to specialists located more than 250 miles away in Glasgow, on the Scottish mainland.

Anyone suffering from an injury to their hand can attend the local hospital where a doctor will put them in touch with a remote orthopedic surgeon via a video conference. Employing the same technology you’d use to video chat with a distant friend–essentially a computer, webcam, and a platform such as Skype–the surgeon can guide the local doctor through a specialist examination of the injured area. Through a coordinated online patient information system, the two doctors can exchange x-rays and lab results and arrive at a diagnosis without the patient having to leave the island.

It’s a simple set-up that requires no steep financial investment–even consumer-targeted webcams now offer smooth frame-rates and advanced 4K visuals for less than $200–but it can make a huge difference to the lives of the local population.

Saving Time, Money, and Travel with Video Calling

Doctors operating the orthopedic portal have estimated that the service could save patients around $4,000 in travel costs, plus days of travel and treatment, and there’s always a chance that time and money that could ultimately be wasted if it turns out that surgery or specialized treatment isn’t necessary. By holding all the preliminary consultations remotely, patients on the Isle of Lewis are able to get a clear understanding of what’s wrong and can make their own decision about potentially traveling to the mainland for further treatment.

The island program was offered for the first time in April, and was attended by just 11 patients, of whom seven eventually had to travel for treatment. That small number may seem like a disappointing turnout, but the limited need is precisely the point of telemedicine services. Populations such as the Isle of Lewis can’t justify having a full-time orthopedic surgeon work within their towns, given the small number of patients requiring their care, but that doesn’t mean that residents should miss out on the service when it’s needed.

The same webcam operation that gives those with injured hands relief can be used to bring other specialists within reach. By educating local doctors to act as video-powered consulting proxies for their distant specialist colleagues, remote communities can receive the same medical advantages as their suburban peers.

It doesn’t require a great technological leap to achieve.

Telemedicine in Rural and Remote Areas

Medicine is at the frontier of the use of video conferencing technology. VC Daily has previously discussed its use across several fields, including those that would at first appear too hands-on to work effectively online, such as emergency telemedicine in schools, palliative care, dentistry, and even heart surgery.

In each of those cases, the everyday video technology available now is enough to provide remote services that equal in-room consultations and procedures. Combining visuals with clear audio like only video conferencing can lets a remote expert interview a patient as if they were sharing an office, while the presence of a trained generalist doctor on the patient’s end makes it possible to do a physical examination.

This reality has already led states and government bodies in the U.S. to support large-scale telemedicine services in rural areas of Texas and New Mexico, among others.

For the people of the Isle of Lewis, an orthopedic telemedicine portal could be just the beginning. Eventually, the program could be expanded to provide expert care in other medical areas, care they’d otherwise have to travel hundreds of miles to find. In the end, video conferencing could enable them to enjoy the remote beauty of their homelands without having to suffer the drawbacks of its isolation.

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