Medical engineers receive European investment

  • 2001-02-08
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - The Estonia-based, international telemedicine company Docobo Ltd. received 16 million kroons ($965,000) from the European Commission for further development of the health monitoring program doc@HOME.

Docobo President Ardo Reinsalu said the program focuses on more effective treatment of heart disease. The patient and the doctor are constantly connected with the help of a special monitoring device. The doctors can regularly observe a patient's condition and make a more precise diagnosis.

The commission is funding the doc@HOME within the European Union's fifth framework project, which includes health care improvement as a top priority.

The preliminary stage of the project included negotiations and expert evaluations, according to Reinsalu.

Along with Estonian specialists, medical experts from other European countries are also involved in the project.

"The whole concept has been developed on the basis of Estonian intellectual property, but its realization involves an international team," said project development director Kristjan Port.

Remote consultation between doctors and patients is not a new concept, but programs like doc@HOME take it a step further with distant health monitoring.

"To some extent our solution is the culmination of previous developments. Besides, this technology does not require having a PC or any other expensive gadget at home," said Port.

The device itself looks like a regular hand-held PC and has all the features of an electrocardiograph appliance.

"We made the buttons big keeping in mind older people's coordination," Port explained.

When the patient holds the device in both hands, it produces a cardiogram. Then the patient can input the symptoms of the disease, which are sent to the physician. Experts say it is not necessary to keep the device at hand all the time.

Port said he would not reveal all the details of the device's commercial use, just under what circumstances it could be used.

"For example, in the United States one day of stationary treatment at a hospital costs an average of $2,600, and a doctor's fee for visiting a patient exceeds $100. Hence, by preventing (acute illness) and visiting a doctor, a significant sum could be saved," he said.

According to preliminary estimates, the program will be free for end-users, and social insurance institutions will have to pay a monthly fee of about 250 kroons. Port said the program could be profitable, depending on the market. For example, it could be used for diet and fitness purposes.

"As we are currently testing the system to prove its usability to the (European Commission) experts, we haven't yet signed any contracts with either state or private institutions. We do not exclude the system can be used in Estonia and are eager to get the opinion of local health insurance institutions," said Port.

Margit Kipper of the Ministry of Social Affairs' IT department said that currently no funds are being allocated for telemedics projects.

Toomas Asser, the dean of the medical faculty at Tartu University and a professor of neurosurgery, acquainted himself with the Docobo system last summer at a special telemedics conference in Goteborg, Sweden.

"Telemedics in Estonia is at its early stage and therefore it is not easy to define the position of Docobo in our health care system," said Asser.

He added that the economic side of remote health monitoring is not developed enough in Estonia or abroad.

Asser said the system needs further studies and testing to ensure the results provided by the system are correct.

A similar project is BITNET, cooperatively developed by Estonia, Sweden and Latvia. The IT part of BITNET, however, is based on regular consultations over the Internet.

Though its uses and profitability are still widely unexplored, medical experts are sure telemedics is here to stay.

"Telemedicine, which in the future should be very promising, is taken into account when shaping the concept of Estonian health care at state and local level," said Asser.