Since the 1980s, different organizations have worked in telemedicine with limited development due to the lack of knowledge of the population and the low connectivity in the region. While COVID-19 cases are increasing in Latin America, this tool helps protect the most vulnerable and reduce the load of hospitals.

Telemedicine and its advantages

Telemedicine is, in a nutshell, the remote provision of medical services. Although the interactive video is the most popular tool, telemedicine includes several telecommunications and information technologies such as:

  • remote control of emergency rooms
  • reminding patients to take their medications
  • providing educational material about an illness
  • telephone evaluations
  • real-time chat,
  • medicine prescriptions

The benefits of telemedicine are extensive since it allows reaching remote and deprived communities of medical attention. In Guatemala, almost 80% of health professionals are located in the metropolitan area, 15% in the departmental capitals, and only 5% in rural municipalities. In contrast, mobile telephony is the main communication service of the country. It has presence in 80% of households (Samayoa; 2020). This scenario doesn’t mean that Guatemala is ready to fully adopt telemedicine because most of the population doesn’t have the necessary bandwidth or smartphones.

Another advantage of telemedicine is that it lowers costs per consultation, increasing the number of patients that can be treated. For these services to be accessible to all the Guatemalan population, the Internet needs to be cheaper. According to the Internet Access Coalition, a connection of one Gigabit per second should not cost more than 2% of the average monthly income. In Guatemala this percentage is 4%. This makes Guatemala one of the most expensive countries in Latin America in access to digital media (Bin, 2020). With the correct implementation of public policies and the creation of new connectivity protocols, telemedicine could be a long term response to bring the population closer to health services.

Benefits concerning COVID-19

Even with all the myths about Internet and Covid19  we can ensure that telemedicine prevents medical staff and patients from infections. At the same time, this tool supports sick patients that have to stay at home while receiving treatment for the virus. Suspicious cases can be inspected from a distance and possible contagions are avoided. Likewise, patients who are in the middle of a treatment not related to the coronavirus can continue it from their homes.

 On the other hand, the productivity of the health staff has increased since the different apps reduce consultation time and eliminate the commute. They also allow specialists to be in many places. Cynthia LeRouge, an expert in telemedicine explains that it “adds to traditional medicine and does not replace it” (FIFARMA, 2020).

Progress has been made nationwide in the field of telemedicine due to the emergency created by COVID 19. Some examples of new apps are E-médica and Appdoctors. Alsohealth centers have implemented call centers, such as the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS), which is offering telephone consultations to all its members through the number 1522.  Also the University of San Carlos, which established the Telesalud program, is providing attention through calls to the number 1592 and WhatsApp messages to the 44993028 number.

Telemedicine is a fast, necessary, and innovative response to this pandemic. It gained strength in Guatemala and other regions of Latin America because it helped to desaturate health centers and prevent infections.