A ‘telemedicine’ system led by the US Department of State and computer giant IBM is bringing much-needed access to medical care to remote areas of Pakistan.

A public-private alliance, which also includes partners such Wateen Telecom, Motorola and the Pakistani Government, has set up a central coordinating system at the Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi that is connected to District Headquarters Hospital in Attock. The latter is in a rural area with very limited medical resources.

The Pakistan Telemedicine Project offers healthcare services through this ‘virtual clinic’, and the wireless broadband access allows “the exchange of massive amounts of information” between the two hospitals, IBM notes. The partnership provides “interactive collaboration tools” such as secure email, voice and video conferencing on a secure telemedicine network with advanced medical peripheral devices”, the firm says. These include portable ultrasound, digital cameras, EKGs, stethoscopes and X-ray machines.

Motorola and Wateen are supplying the broadband technology, called WiMAx, while the US Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center will provide four medical consultants, including a cardiologist, ophthalmologist and trauma specialist. Medweb, which worked with IBM on a similar project on Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited island, is providing telemedicine software, servers and medical input devices.

Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world (173 million people) and Asif Zafar, of the Holy Family Hospital said that the goal of this project “is to highlight technology's ability to overcome a significant healthcare imbalance”. He noted that more than 75% of the population live in rural areas but only 22% of the country’s doctors work there.

"With the proliferation and fusion of information, telecommunications and medical technologies, we can bring advanced healthcare services to people in remote geographies with compassion, efficiency and affordability," said IBM’s Dan Pelino.