The use of telecommunications and information technology to provide clinical healthcare at a distance, known as telemedicine, has been gaining momentum for some time, but now it is being pioneered in Thailand in Chiang Mai's Saraphi district.
Doctors and Tambon Health Promoting Hospitals officials are running face-to-face video calls via Google+ Hangout
Thanks to the advent of mobile apps, the 3G network and advances in mapping technology, Saraphi Hospital and Chiang Mai University are implementing a community-based health geographic information system in the northern province.
Saraphi is the first place in Thailand for the "Amphur Sang Suk", or Happy Amphur, project. Utilising smartphones and tablets, Tambon Health Promoting Hospitals (THPH) officials have trained local youths and volunteers to conduct health data surveys among their communities.
Named SaraphiHealth, the app developed by a team at Chiang Mai University enables THPH officials and volunteers to collect data and report results in real time. SaraphiHealth is part of the Development of Community Based Health Geographical Information System Using Mobile Devices research and development project.
Running on both iOS and Android mobile devices, the app enables users to view overall basic physical data of communities, households and individuals in Saraphi district, according to Ekkarat Boonchieng, chief of Chiang Mai University's Computer Science Department.
There are more than 25,000 households in Saraphi and so far data collection has been done for 60% of them. Data collection will be completed within the next three months. Ekkarat said the first phase of the project is associated with problem assessment, covering the state of the environment, persons who need special care, household economy, the choice of health services, behaviour relating to health, household environment, and security.
The assessment of health behaviour covers family eating habits, how families take care themselves as well as their exercise activities.
The data will be presented in the form of maps and graphs as well as text and tables. Users can view the living circumstances of households by zooming in on photos via Google Streetview maps.
Dr Jaras Singkaew, director of Saraphi Hospital, said the programme was designed to be viewed at three levels: district, tambon and village. This will enable doctors and care-givers to view the number of chronic patients and check the disease history of families and community members.
"Not only will this help us to take care of patients, it will also strengthen people's ability to take care of themselves at home," said Dr Jaras. He added that since the survey has been carried out by local youths and public health volunteers, all information is witnessed by villagers.
"Having accurate information enables us to work in passive and active modes and we can set priorities to take care of patients extensively," he said.
The Happy Amphur project is supported by True Corporation, while Google Thailand offered mapping services and Google Streetview technology. Google will expand the project to other Southeast Asian countries and the global market.
In Thailand, chronic disease is the primary public health problem and causes a lot of patients to be bedridden. With only one doctor per 2,728 people, the Happy Amphur project was initiated by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (Thai Health) as a pilot model of a health network at district level. The scheme integrates IT and healthcare services to facilitate primary healthcare services run by local communities.
According to Dr Supreeda Adulyanont, Thai Health deputy CEO, after Saraphi, two more districts _ Laplae in Uttaradit and Kuchinarai in Kalasin _ are preparing to introduce the Happy Amphur project.
Once the community health information is completed in three years' time, it can help reduce chronic diseases by 20% and lead to the systematic rehabilitation of at least 60% of chronic disease patients in the area.
The Happy Amphur project is supported by True Corporation and Google Thailand.