Alentejo – one of five Portuguese continental regions – faces major problems impacting the health and social system of the region. Here, the low population density, the low educational and income level as well as an aging population have to be mentioned. Faced with the task of ensuring equal access to healthcare for all its inhabitants, the regional health authorities created the telemedicine program.
From 1998 until 2000, the program developed in an experimental fashion, with teleconsultations involving a number of providers: primary health care centers, regional hospitals, and central hospitals. Between 2000 and 2010, there were a total of 135,000 telemedicine acts including teleconsultations, teleradiology (computerised tomography and x-rays), ultrasound telemedicine and telepathology. Presently, the network comprises 20 health centers and 6 hospitals, covering 4 districts. The platform is composed of high resolution videoconferencing equipment, software with patients' clinical records, an image archive, and a number of peripherals, such as electronic dermatoscopes and phonendoscopes. Teleconsultations are provided by fifteen medical specialties, across 3 district hospitals, ranging from neurology to pediatric surgery.
In 2008, health authorities started the telelearning program, initially using point to point videoconferencing, and by the end of 2010, 848 healthcare professionals, across 52 locations, had participated in remote learning sessions, covering topics from chronic wound treatment, to infection control, to medical error. As of 2011, point to multipoint telelearning is also in operation.
This paper provides an overview of the telemedicine program in Alentejo, including both infrastructure and operations. Preliminary results of an ongoing evaluation of the impact of teleconsultations on key indicators of the regional healthcare system are also presented (including current utilization and plans for future expansion). This article builds on the experience acquired throughout a decade of using telemedicine on an everyday basis, in a context of remarkable challenges in the delivery of accessible, equitable and quality healthcare services.