Satellite-based system provides layman access to medical care in Haiti

Satellite phones and navigation are enabling earthquake-stricken Haiti to have access to healthcare despite crippling damage to the country's infrastructure. The satellite-based system, designed by France's Institute for Space Medicine (MEDES) and Portugal's Local Insight Global Impact (LIGI), as reported by the European Space Agency, makes up for the lack of local healthcare resources by ensuring that anyone, anywhere can be trained to report the symptoms of a patient accurately.

Using a special interface for satellite and smartphones, the system walks a user through a series of steps to send data as SMS messages via satellite or a ground-based system, if available. This information then is accessed by local and national health systems through an Internet portal. Within minutes, a diagnosis and feedback on what to do for the patient is provided. If serious medical attention is required, healthcare professionals are dispatched to the location.

This real-time data tool also is helping Haiti with the early detection of potential epidemics by revealing trends in symptoms and mapping out the locations. Satellite navigation signals are used to geo-tag symptom records, indicating where the data are collected, and putting patients in contact with the nearest healthcare provider.

Two years ago, Haiti was ravaged by a cholera epidemic in which thousands of Haitians died. The epidemic spread at an alarming rate of 10,000 per month. With this satellite system in place, health officials hope to better track how an epidemic can emerge and spread to neighboring areas, while preventing the onset of new outbreaks.

A five-month trial was conducted in Carrefour, a poor district in the Ouest Department of Port-au-Prince, where 10 teachers from urban and rural areas were trained to use the interface. More than 4,300 symptom declarations were sent, allowing healthcare professionals to diagnose and make decisions on treatment almost immediately.

"We have shown that the interface is easy to use, and that non-health professionals can be trained to use it," LIGI's Susana Frazao Pinheiro said. As a result, LIGI and MEDES will be expanding the system to more remote areas of Haiti.

Soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a mobile medical clinic from the United States filled with state-of-the-art telemedicine gear and a satellite audio/video link, as well as a 25-pound, solar-powered, medical backpack with a telemedicine connection, was deployed to the area. The technology provided live, remote access to health professionals stateside.

In a remarkable story at the time, an iPhone helped a man trapped in the rubble for three days after the earthquake in Haiti to treat his own injuries. With a broken leg and and blood pouring out of a head wound, the man used his iPhone running the Jive Media Pocket First Aid & CPR app to find out how to treat a compound fracture and heavy bleeding.

To learn more:
- here's the European Space Agency post