US Army helps bring virtual health care to Albanian hospitals

TIRANA, ALBANIA — “One of the great­est dis­eases is to be nobody to any­body,” said Moth­er Tere­sa, the Alban­ian Saint for whom the country’s largest hos­pi­tal is named. By con­nect­ing even the most remote regions of Alba­nia to the glob­al med­ical com­mu­ni­ty, telemed­i­cine is attempt­ing to cure this dis­ease.

Alban­ian hos­pi­tals will soon be linked through a vir­tu­al net­work enabling high-qual­i­ty, uni­form health care for all cit­i­zens.
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Des­ig­nat­ed areas at the “Moth­er Tere­sa” Uni­ver­si­ty Hos­pi­tal Cen­ter and three oth­er major region­al hos­pi­tals through­out Alba­nia are being ren­o­vat­ed to house new telemed­i­cine and e‑health centers. 

Once the ren­o­va­tions, fund­ed by the U.S. Euro­pean Com­mand and man­aged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers Europe Dis­trict, are com­plete, the Alban­ian hos­pi­tals will be linked through a vir­tu­al net­work enabling high-qual­i­ty, uni­form health care for all citizens. 

“Like many oth­er devel­op­ing coun­tries, my coun­try suf­fers from a lack of resources in the health sec­tor,” said Art­ian Dau­taj, the human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance pro­gram man­ag­er at the Office of Defense Coop­er­a­tion, Tirana. “There is need for invest­ment and improve­ment in infrastructure.” 

Cur­rent­ly, five of the 12 major region­al hos­pi­tals in Alba­nia are con­nect­ed via a hub-and-spoke infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy sys­tem to the cen­tral e‑heath cen­ter in Tirana. By March of this year, three addi­tion­al hos­pi­tals will have the infra­struc­ture in place to con­nect to the network. 

“The telemed­i­cine pro­gram aims to link dif­fer­ent lev­els of health care to ensure a bet­ter func­tion­ing and sus­tain­able sys­tem,” said Dr. Agim Koçi­raj, the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment, or USAID, local health specialist. 

The telemed­i­cine net­work will enable health care pro­fes­sion­als to con­duct e‑learning, con­sul­ta­tions and even diag­nose patients from a distance. 

“Res­i­dents from dis­tricts and regions can obtain diag­noses, treat­ment or a sec­ond opin­ion from a spe­cial­ist at the Tirana Uni­ver­si­ty Hos­pi­tal,” said Dr. Eri­on Dasho, the USAID inte­grat­ed telemed­i­cine and e‑health pro­gram local coordinator. 

Region­al doc­tors and nurs­es will soon have the med­ical exper­tise of spe­cial­ists in Tirana at their fin­ger­tips and on their com­put­er screens. Even­tu­al­ly, all major Alban­ian hos­pi­tals will con­nect to the hub in Tirana, and by exten­sion, link to med­ical pro­fes­sion­als through­out the U.S. and Europe. 

“The aver­age cit­i­zen will ben­e­fit from improved access to and qual­i­ty of care,” Dasho said. 

The best med­ical advice in the coun­try, region and world will soon be avail­able to Alban­ian patients. Dif­fi­cult med­ical cas­es will be tele-con­sult­ed through the vir­tu­al net­work, Dasho said. 

The com­ple­tion of this project will “reduce trans­fer from orig­i­nal hos­pi­tals to Tirana or hos­pi­tals abroad for treat­ment,” Dau­taj said. 

The telemed­i­cine idea, pro­posed in 2007 by the Inter­na­tion­al Vir­tu­al e‑Hospital Foun­da­tion and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona swift­ly won the back­ing of Alban­ian leadership. 

“We have the sup­port of the Prime Min­is­ter of Alba­nia, Sali Berisha,” Dau­taj said. “He has been on TV talk­ing about the program.” 

Once the Alban­ian gov­ern­ment approved the telemed­i­cine con­cept, EUCOM and USACE start­ed work­ing in tan­dem with USAID to bring telemed­i­cine to the Balkan country. 

“This is the first exe­cu­tion of a telemed­i­cine project for EUCOM,” Dau­taj said. 

The ren­o­va­tion work cur­rent­ly tak­ing place is part of a larg­er project being coor­di­nat­ed with USAID and the Alban­ian Min­istry of Health, or MOH

“The EUCOM human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance-fund­ed por­tion is designed to ren­o­vate appro­pri­ate spaces in prepa­ra­tion for the instal­la­tion and devel­op­ment of a nation­al telemed­i­cine net­work,” Dau­taj explained. 

In each hos­pi­tal, an e‑health exam­in­ing room, train­ing room, serv­er and tech­nol­o­gy room and an admin­is­tra­tive office are being built. The $960,000 ren­o­va­tions pro­vide new walls, win­dows, floor­ing, and upgrad­ed heat­ing, elec­tri­cal and plumb­ing sys­tems and roof replace­ments to house the new facil­i­ties. Once the ren­o­va­tions are fin­ished, USAID will install equip­ment and pro­vide train­ing for hos­pi­tal per­son­nel, and the Alban­ian MOH will man­age the telemed­i­cine program. 

The first four com­plete­ly ren­o­vat­ed e‑health cen­ters are expect­ed to be hand­ed over to the client ahead of sched­ule or on sched­ule in March 2012, said Bri­an Trza­s­ka, USACE spe­cial projects civ­il engineer. 

“Thank god we have the Corps [of Engi­neers],” Dau­taj said. “We are very sat­is­fied. They have been an asset.” 

The telemed­i­cine pro­gram comes to fruition through the hard work and coor­di­na­tion of many U.S. and Alban­ian agencies. 

“This is a team effort,” Dau­taj explained. “We are coop­er­at­ing with USACE and USAID.” 

The ren­o­va­tion of all 12 e‑health cen­ters is antic­i­pat­ed to be com­plete by the end of 2013 or ear­ly 2014. Once the infra­struc­ture is in place, USAID and the MOH will take the final steps to mod­ern­ize Alban­ian health care. 

U.S. Army 

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