Soldiers wounded in combat in war-torn Ukraine have been receiving expert medical care thanks to a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization and a veritable army of volunteer physicians from around the world.
This work is possible through high-tech equipment provided by the World Telehealth Initiative (WTI), which currently has 26 units around Ukraine — from the front lines to large hospitals in major cities.
The machines, donated by Teladoc Health, allow doctors from any location to conduct visits with patients anywhere an internet connection is available.
They even connect to specialty cameras and stethoscopes that provide real-time diagnostics with views and sounds that practically duplicate in-person exams.
“Our humanitarian effort has served countless Ukrainian patients and doctors in vital specialties, including trauma surgery, intensive care, neurosurgery and more,” said Sharon Allen, co-founder and CEO of World Telehealth Initiative.
“Furthermore, in the first year of the conflict we have facilitated improved standards of care such as updated major hemorrhage protocols. We look forward to continuing to serve the needs of the Ukrainian people and health-care system for years to come.”
In conjunction with the Feb. 24 one-year anniversary of the Ukraine War, the Ministry of Health and WTI hosted the inaugural international Telehealth Forum in Kyiv, Ukraine, earlier this month to bring together the nation’s health-care leadership to share program experiences, best practices and plans to scale.
Allen and WTI co-founder Yulun Wang both participated in the conference, which helped educate Ukrainian military doctors and surgeons on how to conduct combat-zone triage and other care via telehealth.
“The objective was both to educate them on telemedicine as well as work with them to figure out how to use telemedicine to bring much needed expertise closer to the front line,” Wang told Noozhawk.
The Ukraine Ministry of Health first reached out to WTI about serving the country’s medical needs shortly after the Russian invasion last year.
Getting all the equipment where it needed to be was a logistical challenge, but it started arriving in April, and the project has continued to grow ever since.
“We’ve done a lot of neurosurgery consults; there’s lots of head wounds,” Allen explained. “There’s lots of complex patients: shrapnel, lots of ophthalmology, lots of internal shrapnel to the organs, lots of neurosurgery.”
While the immediate goal is to support care for soldiers, WTI is also filling in the gaps in care for the general population.
The damage to hospitals will have a long-term impact, as more than 760 health-care facilities in the Ukraine have been attacked and damaged in the Russian conflict, leaving hundreds of thousands without access to care, WTI officials said.
“They will need support for years after the conflict ends, and we’re committed to being there with them,” Allen said.
In addition to bringing in international medical providers virtually, Ukrainian doctors also use this telehealth network to connect their in-country experts from city centers to their medics closer to the front lines.
“The World Telehealth Initiative program has been highly impactful for Ukrainian patients and doctors during the conflict,” Mariia Karchevych MPA, Ukraine’s deputy health minister said in a news release.
“We have experienced firsthand how doctors located anywhere can effectively deliver care at any time. Telemedicine has the potential to be a key component in the transformation of our health-care system.”
Having never been in a war zone, Wang described what he saw on the trip as “surreal.” Everyday life went on simply because it had to, while the dark realities of war always lurked in the background.
“It seems like everyone we talked to knows somebody close, like a nephew, a brother, who is at the front line, and some have died,” Wang said.
WTI has implemented similar telehealth care in several countries around the globe. The organization leverages partnerships with Teladoc Health and others to bring health care to areas that otherwise have little to no medical services.
“Teladoc donates the network access as well as these diagnostic-enabled robotic telehealth devices to us, and we in turn partner with clinics or hospitals throughout the world in very vulnerable or low-resource communities,” Allen said.
The technology is high-end and several steps above what most people think of when they hear the term “telehealth.”
It has a robotic head on a base, and it can turn and adjust as needed. Various diagnostic instruments can be plugged in, including a stethoscope that allows the remote physician to hear the heart and lung sounds of the patient.
A remote oral surgeon can have a clear up-close view inside a patient’s mouth with a diagnostic camera on a cord that also plugs in and transmits the images in real time.
The idea for this endeavor started with Wang here in Santa Barbara. Among his many business startups and inventions was InTouch Health, a company that went on to become part of Teladoc Health.
InTouch Health initially developed the concept for this equipment and spent 15 years and many millions of dollars in developing a cloud-based network. Founders say they believe there is a “social responsibility to use this preeminent technology to advance health care where it is needed most.”
Wang and Allen joined forces in 2017 to launch WTI with the goal of using the technology in a philanthropic manner.
The response both from volunteer health-care providers and communities on the receiving end of their care has been robust and positive, they say.
Currently, there are about 1,000 volunteers. These doctors often want to do something to help but have to overcome obstacles such as time, distance and cost. Working with WTI allows them to volunteer in smaller blocks of time from their own home or office.
“Our very own Cottage (Health) is actually very prominent and very helpful in terms of this whole effort,” Wang said.
A patient typically is set up with a local health-care provider who lacks the necessary expertise for the situation. The virtual provider not only helps diagnose and recommend treatment, but also essentially trains the local provider to be better equipped for similar challenges in the future.
“Our goal is always to upskill the local providers with the intention that they can learn and grow in their practice, and eventually be able to serve more and more of their community independently,” Allen said.
In addition, this model is superior to other medical missions that are travel-based because it develops long-term results in target populations through ongoing assistance and training of local medical workers, Wang said.
This telehealth technology is able to work on less internet availability than some might guess, thanks to the recent launch of Starlink satellite-based internet to places that normally would not have access — even remote villages in the middle of Africa.
“Because of the way the technology is designed, it uses very low bandwidth,” Allen said of the WTI telehealth program. “So even where Zoom connections don’t work, our technology does work.
“So as long as there’s a little bit of internet, we can function.”
To learn more, visit www.WorldTelehealthInitiative.org.
Learn more about Teladoc (NYSE: TDOC) at teladoc.com.
[Noozhawk’s note: Some people in the photos are identified only by partial names or nicknames due to security concerns, as health facilities have been targets in the war.]