Telemedicine is having an enormous impact on the quality of life for Latin Americans. Nearly 83% of the 423 million people who live in South America reside in urban areas. 72 million people occupy rural areas. Both groups find it difficult to access specialized medical care in a timely fashion. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the largest state in Brazil (Amazonas) has 4,000 doctors to tend to 3.5 million people (1.1 physicians per 1,000 people). WHO recommends a minimum of 1.4 doctors per 1,000 residents. Other states in Brazil, and other Latin American countries fare slightly better: Uruguay has the most favorable ratio, with 4 doctors for every 1000 inhabitants.

Additionally, the vast majority of Latin American medical specialists (i.e.: cardiologists, oncologists, mental health specialists, pediatric specialists, and subspecialists) are concentrated in the big cities. And within those cities, most specialists congregate in one small area. In a 485 square mile city like Rio de Janeiro, it could take someone on the outskirts of the city a long time to get a consultation with the right specialist in residence in the right hospital.

The access to medical specialists for the people who need them is problematic. When a child in a remote area gets very ill, the family has some hard choices to make. Often the child ends up missing school, a parent must miss work, and the family members are separated for long periods of time in order to receive treatment in faraway places, making it difficult for them to provide support for each other. Getting a specialist consultation, a second opinion, or specialized treatment is simply unrealistic for most remote residents.

The solution is not more specialists in remote areas – that is almost impossible. But, through Cisco’s HD Live Interactive Telemedicine System, specialists can stay in big city hospitals AND serve suburban and rural hospitals at the same time. This system is based on a platform that integrates video solutions and communication software to allow hospitals to communicate with each other through telepresence.

Gustavo Menéndez Bernales, Business Development Manager for Cisco Latin America, is excited by telemedicine’s potential: “At Cisco we have a commitment towards programs with deep social impact because we believe technology can help bridge the gap in ensuring services such as those in healthcare reach the entire population. Simply stated, telemedicine programs provide ’Equal and Timely Access‘ to healthcare for all citizens.”

Telemedicine increases access in multiple ways — it can actually be less expensive than conventional treatment. A program in Argentina allows infectious disease specialists to support HIV patients and family physicians remotely via WebEx. The cost? USD $49.99/month.

Telepresence technology allows doctors to communicate not only with patients, it also allows them to communicate with other doctors, to collaborate and to receive continued medical education. As an example, remote physicians can participate, listen in and learn from “tumor board” conversations, where experts from big cities around the country, or even around the world, discuss cases and treatment options. And they aren’t just listening – they are seeing images of what the physicians are discussing.

What does this mean for Latin Americans? For one boy in Argentina, it means he got to keep his leg. The child’s local doctor saw no alternative to removing his leg, which was dangerously infected. But when the physician consulted via telepresence with a specialist at the Argentina Pediatric Center of Excellence, he learned about a different approach using a new type of medicine, and was able to save the boy’s leg.

A college student in Chile is alive today because of telemedicine. After suffering a heart attack, he was transported to a local hospital that lacked a cardiologist on staff. His local doctors managed to save his life with the support of a remote cardiologist from Concepcion Hospital, connected via telepresence. After stabilizing the situation, the cardiologist, who was trained at Vanderbilt University in the United States, conferred with Vanderbilt to get a second opinion. The young man was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, and immediately started to receive the correct treatment. Within 48 hours, he was able to return to college, instead of spending months in the hospital waiting for someone to figure out what was wrong with him.

And two babies in the middle of the jungle in Peru had zero chance of survival without telemedicine. The girls were born joined as Siamese twins at a tiny hospital in Pucallpa. The hospital immediately contacted the National Pediatric hospital in Lima and shared the situation via telepresence. Within 12 hours, a team of 13 specialists, including extremely specialized cardiovascular surgeons, a plastic surgeon, a neonatologist, two anesthesiologists, and a medical imaging specialist, had been assembled to assess the situation remotely, and prepare for the arrival of the babies in Lima, where an ambulance waiting at the airport took them directly to the operating room.

Cisco is supporting telemedicine programs like these in countries throughout Latin America. Thanks to Cisco’s technology and mission to make the world a better place for everyone, more and more people in suburban areas and impoverished rural villages in Latin America are getting the same access to specialists as residents of the biggest and wealthiest cities.


Jordi Botifoll

No Longer with Cisco