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TELEMEDICINE LINK INAUGURATED TODAY BETWEEN THE ISLANDS OF MALTA AND GOZO

Valletta, Malta, 24 March 1998 — Dr Michael Farrugia, Minister of Health, Care of the Elderly and Family Affairs in the Republic of Malta, officially inaugurated today a telemedicine link between St. Luke’s Hospital in Malta and the General Hospital in the sister island of Gozo. The inauguration took place at the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC) during the World Telecommunication Development Conference organized by the International Telecommunication Union.

Images were relayed live by Maltacom Ltd. from St. Luke’s Hospital to the MCC during a real-time telemedicine session with Gozo General Hospital. Specialists at the two hospitals carried on an interactive discussion on clinical cases and exchanged clinical materials (such as X-ray images) over a real-time videoconferencing link.

"Since time immemorial, patients from Gozo have had to cross over to Malta by ferry, or more recently, by helicopter in order to receive the more specialized health services available here", Dr Farrugia said. The journey can be very demanding on persons who are ill, especially in winter time. Now thanks to the videoconferencing link that I am officially inaugurating today, it is possible for doctors in Gozo to carry out a clinical discussion about their patients with specialists in Malta, thus reducing the number of times that the patient needs to cross over to Malta and back", he added. The Minister recalled the strong commitment of Malta in developing telemedicine links and acknowledged the assistance given by all partners. The ITU provided overall project coordination between local and foreign health and telecommunication partners, Telia, the Swedish telecommunication company, made available assistance and guidelines for project evaluation, Maltacom provided the infrastructure and services and MITTS procured and integrated all the hardware, software and network components.

The link which connects Gozo General Hospital to the Maltese Government’s comprehensive and integrated information system for all public hospitals and health centres was upgraded from the existing 64 Kbps to 2 Mbps to accommodate real-time video-conferencing and the rapid transfer of large data files on an ongoing basis.

The Malta/Gozo link uses Maltacom’s fibre-optic and digital radio transmission network. At Gozo Exchange and Gozo General Hospital high bit-rate digital subscriber line (HDSL) modems are being used, while the internal communication within Gozo hospital, as well as at St. Luke’s Hospital, is completely fibre-optic technology. In both hospitals, the telemedicine workstations are connected to the Malta Government Network (MAGNET), the high-bandwidth local area Government network installed and maintained by Malta Information Technology and Training Services Ltd. (MITTS).

Mr Joe Mizzi, Minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office said that the project was a concrete example of the benefits of collaboration between developed and developing countries. "It provides an excellent example of the benefits of close cooperation between telecommunications operators and health care professionals" the Minister said. "Telemedecine will help extend specialist care those currently without easy access to medical institutions or the specialists they actually need" he added. Mr Mizzi urged all partners of the project to continue their efforts in finding innovative applications to telecommunications for the benefit of the entire society.

Speaking at the inauguration, Mr Ahmed Laouyane, Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), described the role of ITU as that of a catalyst. "Telemedicine is a multidisciplinary undertaking, requiring the active participation of different players from both the telecom and healthcare sectors" he said. "Thus, the BDT has been focusing its activity in bringing together the different partners who can make telemedicine a reality", he added.

Mr Laouyane recalled the initiatives taken by the BDT in the area of telemedicine. "The BDT was a founding member of the Midjan Group, an association of professionals from the telecom and health care sectors with the shared aim of stimulating telemedicine projects in developing countries. In July 1997, we organized the first World Telemedicine Symposium in Developing Countries in Portugal. In September, a major report on telemedicine for developing countries was issued to help countries gain better understanding of how such applications can be cost-effectively utilized. We also intend to analyze the results from a number of pilot projects which would serve as case studies for other developing countries interested in the application of telecoms and information technologies to meet some of the health care needs of developing countries" he concluded.

The development of the Malta/Gozo link is part of a telemedicine project started in November at the initiative of the BDT in partnership with Malta’s Ministry of Health, Maltacom plc, MITTS Ltd., Telia, and the Midjan Group. Another important component of the project is the development of off-line transfer of paediatric echocardiography images from the Special Care Baby Unit at St. Luke’s Hospital to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick children in London. The objective is to speed up and facilitate the sending of images for expert assessment and reporting before decisions are taken on the need to transfer children with congenital heart problems from Malta to London for specialized surgery.

Telia’s Programme Director of Health Care, Mr Silas Olsson said that Telia Swedtel, in cooperation with ITU, had a two-fold interest in promoting telemedicine in the emerging and developing markets. "We contribute to bridge the knowledge and competence gap between and within markets and to spearhead the change-process in telecommunications operations by the commercial exploitation of IT and Internet systems", Mr Olsson said.

An important feature of both the Malta/Gozo and the Malta/London links is that emphasis has been place on the sustainability of the initiatives. The computer equipment and telecommunications infrastructure will be permanently in place, thus allowing the ongoing use of the links. The uptake of these technologies is yet another step in the development of the health services in Malta, which have had a high reputation in the Mediterranean region for several centuries.

A link between DiabCare Centres in Malta and in Sweden is also planned during the WTDC with two diabetes specialists who will carry out an real time interactive case discussion.

For further information you may contact: Mr Leonid Androuchko, Telecommunication Development Bureau, ITU, telephone: +41 22 730 5433 fax: +41 22 730 5484, e-mail: androuchko@itu.int.   Until 1 April, Mr Androuchko can be reached in Malta at +356 09 421 370

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