SPECIAL REPORT: Challenges and Opportunities for Telemedicine in Latin America

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated both the use and adoption of telemedicine and digital health globally. Around the world, patients are scheduling fewer in-person clinic visits in favor of conducting their appointments via online laptops, tablets, or smartphones.

Telemedicine appointments can save patients over 100 minutes compared to an in-person visit. And patients are fully embracing telemedicine due to the added convenience it provides. Patient adoption of telehealth is up 33% over 2019, with the global market expected to reach $185.6 billion by 2026.

While the benefits of telemedicine are promising for both doctors and patients, there are still regions that present unique challenges when attempting to transition into telehealth. One of the most challenging regions is Latin America.

Challenges to digital health in Latin America

According to the United Nations for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the challenges related to healthcare in the region “arise chiefly from inequalities in access to and quality of health care, demographic, and epidemiological changes in the population, the pressure exerted on health care systems by shortages of resources (professionals, infrastructure, supplies, etc.), and public expenditure sustainability issues.”

Lack of trained professionals

In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that countries with fewer than 2.3 healthcare professionals for every 1,000 inhabitants have less than adequate coverage for their population.

Until 2017, there were 2.28 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants in Latin America and the Caribbean, barely enough for their inhabitants. However, some countries, like Haiti, Guyana, Honduras, and Guatemala had less than 1 doctor per 1,000 inhabitants.

Along with the shortage of healthcare professionals, few providers in this area are adequately trained to integrate digital tools into their practice. Many countries do not offer specific education programs in the field of digital medicine. Healthcare professionals who may want to learn how to use these tools may have to look for education in other countries, which can be difficult as most Latin American countries rank low or very low on the English Proficiency Index.

Sociocultural differences

According to ECLAC, “Latin America and the Caribbean is a highly urbanized region, with almost 80% of the population residing in cities. Its urban population has increased almost sevenfold over the past 60 years and presently amounts to over 470 million people.”

Latin America is a pluricultural and multiethnic region in which many indigenous groups are isolated from cities and still practice traditional customs when it comes to healthcare. These sociocultural differences make it difficult to reach these communities and bring modern healthcare services to them.

In addition, some people do not have access to healthcare services due to language barriers. It can be difficult to find providers who speak native languages, preventing these patients from communicating their needs and receiving care. In Guatemala alone, more than 25 languages are currently spoken.

Low digital literacy

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that “Digital inclusion is a crucial element in addressing socioeconomic inequalities in the region (Latin America and the Caribbean), where internet access services are considered essential to ensure the well-being of citizens.”

Despite this knowledge, in 2017 the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimated that the number of digitally excluded individuals in Latin America and the Caribbean exceeded 200 million. Earlier this year, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reported that in 2018, 56% of people in the region used the internet, but only 45.5% of households had a broadband connection.

It’s also important to note that while some have access to the internet, people in the lowest socioeconomic stratum may not know how to use their devices or are confronted with language barriers as there is no information in their language.

Starting the change: education and investment

An opinion paper by Walter Curioso, MD, PhD, MPH from the Department of Biomedical Informatics and Medical Education at the University of Washington, states that collaborative partnerships have an important role in sharing resources, experiences, and lessons while optimizing training and research opportunities in Latin America.

Investment in education is an important first step to begin addressing access issues in the region. However, it is critical that these efforts also incorporate local context, consider local needs, and are sensitive to economic, social, cultural, and organizational factors.

The importance of international and governmental partnerships

Some countries in Latin America have already started paying attention to the importance of adopting telemedicine and its benefits. In 1999, the AMAUTA Global Training in Health Informatics program was developed in Peru to train healthcare professionals in the application of informatics for health. This resulted in several university courses and projects that led to the development of sustainable training opportunities for biomedical informatics in the country.

Online learning is a viable option to provide quick and efficient knowledge for professionals and students. Making access to education easier and more efficient for those who reside in remote rural areas or individuals with disabilities is essential to increasing access and care quality in this region.

In addition, Curioso highlights that, “Healthcare hackathons have also been reported as a reliable source of solutions to healthcare challenges, boosting the process of ‘co-creation,’ and should be organized and evaluated in Latin American countries.”

How Hippo can help

The benefits of telemedicine for healthcare professionals and patients are numerous. And with the unprecedented challenges that COVID-19 has presented, the need for countries to adopt these practices has become more evident.

A hands-free, voice-activated, head-worn tablet from Hippo Technologies, Inc. is leading this digital evolution, providing a virtual learning platform to keep the next generation of healthcare professionals engaged in clinical practice. Hippo’s Virtual Care platform is also propelling medical education into the future by combining the benefits of in-person learning with the safety and convenience of remote care.

The future of medicine is already here, and Hippo is leading the charge so that regions like Latin America can embrace the next wave of digital transformation with confidence.

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