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UPMC expands global reach by video

James Knox | Tribune-Review
Dr. Andrew Watson, UPMC’s chief medical information officer and director of UPMC telemedicine, conducts a consultation with doctors in India on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, in the teleconference center of the U.S. Steel Tower.

About Luis Fábregas
Picture Luis Fábregas 412-320-7998
Medical Editor
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Luis Fábregas is an award-winning reporter who specializes in medical and healthcare issues as a member of the Tribune-Review’s investigations team.

By Luis Fábregas

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, 11:23 p.m.

UPMC's latest overseas project won't require anyone to get on an airplane.

Using video equipment to examine patients thousands of miles away, UPMC doctors will provide second opinions and consultations to counterparts in India and Afghanistan, officials will announce on Wednesday.

The project is part of UPMC's goal of spreading its brand overseas, to places including Ireland, where UPMC operates a cancer center, and Italy, where the health giant has a hospital.

“What you're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. More and more international delivery of medicine and medical care is going to take place with countries that need additional medical resources,” said Greg Billings, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Telehealth and e-Health Law in Washington.

In India, UPMC physicians specializing in oncology, pulmonology and colorectal surgery will be available to consult within 48 hours, said Dr. Andrew Watson, chief medical information officer for UPMC's International and Commercial Services Division.

A separate agreement with Onsite Occupational Health and Safety Inc. will provide consultations to doctors in Afghanistan. Consultations will begin in March in dermatology, infectious disease, neurology and orthopedics.

Watson said medical experts from those countries reach out to UPMC because they are familiar with UPMC's hospitals and doctors. UPMC is fielding requests from Germany, Brazil, Israel and several other countries, he said.

“This is a world without boundaries, and that's what we're seeing,” Watson said. “The advent of telemedicine in a world without boundaries is no different than using Facebook or Skype around the world. We're just seeing this technology impact medicine.”

UPMC would not release financial terms of the deals, which include an agreement with a private company, TeleChikitsa Ventures, based in Bangalore in southern India.

Watson said UPMC doctors will be paid a flat fee for each consultation. Telemedicine services typically are not covered by insurance, but agreements with American hospitals are attractive to people because they cut the cost of travel.

“You can't palpate a patient, but watching somebody examine a patient is almost as good as examining a patient yourself,” Watson said.

Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, said more than 200 U.S. academic medical centers have telemedicine partnerships abroad. Some do it for charitable purposes and others start business ventures, he said.

“The amount of revenue being realized by medical centers is relatively small, but we're on the very beginning of what will be a huge jump in that,” Linkous said.

Telemedicine is widely used by community hospitals that lack specialty doctors. Allegheny General Hospital established a stroke telemedicine program three years ago to assist doctors in Allegheny Health Network hospitals. Within 15 minutes of taking a call, doctors can jump on a laptop to examine patients, review brain images in real time, counsel families and help doctors make treatment decisions, said Dr. Ashis Tayal, medical director for AGH's comprehensive stroke center.

“It has allowed us to make appropriate recommendations as to whether patients could stay at those community hospitals or benefit from a transfer,” he said.

UPMC's telemedicine division has agreements in China, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Colombia, Mexico, Ireland and Italy, officials said.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or




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