Treating patients in remote parts of the globe is difficult. There’s a shortage of physicians, and sometimes patients travel hours — even days — to seek treatment. The logistics of bringing in supplies can thwart efforts, and the relatively small patient pool in individual villages significantly bumps up the per-person cost of medical care. Meanwhile, a lack of basic medical care — not to mention emergency or acute treatments — results in shorter life expectancies, unnecessary suffering from manageable chronic conditions and people dying from treatable diseases.
But technology can help bridge the divide. Here’s how tech from GE Healthcare is making a difference in people’s lives:
Papua New Guinea has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. With few roads or vehicles in the southwestern Pacific country’s remote Gulf Province, travel is measured in terms of walking distance. For example, a small outpatient clinic offering basic healthcare services, including prenatal care, vaccines and a baby milk program, is a three-day walk from the nearest hospital. It also has no advanced medical imaging capabilities — except for a handheld ultrasound device called the Vscan with Dual Probe, which can fit in a pocket and be recharged for continual use.
That’s been a boon for infant and maternal health. “The Vscan was particularly helpful for prenatal care,” says American nurse Marie Elizabeth Bell, who recently spent nine months in Papua New Guinea, where she worked at the Kunai Health Centre. “It can be life-changing for some of these expectant moms, as this may be the only medical care they receive during their entire pregnancy. We can check the baby’s position and rule out any complications.”
One patient walked two days to reach the clinic after her water broke; an ultrasound showed the woman’s baby was sideways, meaning there was no hope of a natural delivery. Armed with that knowledge, the clinic team was able to swing into action, consulting more than five physicians in four different countries for possible treatments. In the end, the patient — who had never seen a car — was helicoptered to the hospital, where she underwent an emergency C-section to save her life.
Nearly 300 million people in China suffer from cardiovascular disease, a problem that’s particularly acute in rural areas: The countryside is home to around 42% of the total population, but six in 10 of the country’s heart disease sufferers. Because of the lack of medical care, rural Chinese are around 17% less likely to survive heart disease in any given year than urbanites. This means that a diagnosis of high blood pressure, which can be the precursor to heart disease, could be inconvenient for someone living in the city of Shanghai, but a tragedy for their compatriot in the remote northwestern province of Qinghai.
GE Healthcare set up a team to use cloud computing technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to bring city-standard medical resources and diagnostic tools to the countryside. That saves frail patients the stress of traveling hundreds of kilometers to receive top-level care in the city, and relieves the pressure on overcrowded central hospitals. Now in rural China, clinicians use a technology called Cloud ECG to check for unusual signs in a heart’s rhythm and electrical activity. The monitors are enhanced with software that pumps a patient’s electrocardiogram images and underlying data into servers that specialists can access, so physicians hundreds or thousands of miles away can diagnose the patient. But first the ECG machine’s built-in software crunches the numbers to ensure that specialists see the most relevant data up front, allowing doctors to make faster and more accurate diagnoses. Their reports can be uploaded for viewing by the rural clinicians in just a few seconds.
Most of the global population lacks access to safe surgical care. According to the World Health Organization, a woman dies each minute from pregnancy-related complications. So the GE Foundation, GE’s philanthropic arm, helped fund a healthcare partnership that focuses on ensuring that quality surgical care is available in remote areas in Africa.
Safe Surgery 2020 launched in 2015 and has now trained more than 1,200 surgical workers across Tanzania and Ethiopia to perform safer operations — saving countless lives in the process. About five months after training started, one clinic recorded a 50% rise in surgical volume, and a 75% drop in surgical referrals caused by infections. Plus, some clinics can now perform procedures they weren’t able to do before. In the rural Ethiopian town of Mehoni, women had to travel to a hospital more than 15 miles away for a C-section; some died before getting there. But training from Safe Surgery means that the local primary hospital in Mehoni itself can now perform Cesareans — and they’re averaging 15 per month.
The idea is to “train trainers,” who can pass on better surgical practices to other medical professionals throughout the region. Safe Surgery 2020 promotes guidelines, derived from the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery Checklist, that are as fundamental as the safety checks that pilots make before takeoff — but often missed in low-income, rural areas where doctors work from local experience. A solution can be as straightforward as training clinical staff to record the number of surgical instruments before and after an operation. In other instances, patients can still be at risk of infection or complications from surgery if staff aren’t trained to ask the right questions and keep the correct measurements — for example, the Apgar score, a quick test to assess the health of newborn babies.
The program is expanding to Southeast Asia.
GE Healthcare is using all sorts of tech, from apps to AI, to help physicians provide better care to their patients, whether they’re in the same room or halfway around the world. For example, the company has an app that can help anesthesiologists reduce the amount of sleeping gas used during surgery while also protecting the patient’s lungs. GE Healthcare also uses AI, machine learning software, voice recognition and other tools to help radiologists sift quickly through gigabytes of X-rays and MRI images, and to help cardiologists monitor treatment progress.
GE’s digital push is also leading to new collaborations in the industry, both with startups and with large players like Roche. GE Healthcare and Roche released NAVIFY Tumor Board 2.0, a solution that pools medical imaging and other patient data to give medical teams a more comprehensive view of each patient in a single place before they decide on treatment. The product allows radiologists to upload their patient records to the same dashboard holding patient files from other disciplines in the cancer care team, meaning all the relevant diagnostic data is easily located and accessible.
Other tech startup partnerships include one that uses machine learning algorithms to help doctors identify high-risk cases inside intensive care units, looking for patients who may take a turn for the worse and those who are progressing well and can be released to standard hospital care. Another uses technology to sift through CT and MRI images of the prostate, helping radiologists spot cancer. And yet another is developing a smartphone app to cut down on canceled surgeries. In Finland, between 10% and 17% of all surgeries get canceled because patients fail to jump through the requisite hoops. The app syncs the hospital requirements to make sure that when patients show up for a procedure, everything goes according to plan.