by James Kline
By Donald Thompson MD, MPH & TM
As a physician I have friends who call me for medical advice from time to time. Actually, all the time… I really do love it when they ask if I can put on my doctor’s hat. These friends who contact me via email, text, WhatsApp, phone, and/or Skype do so from both domestic and international settings. The use of any medium of communication with me while I’m wearing my doctor’s hat is a form of telemedicine. If you are currently working internationally as an expatriate, there’s reason to ask if there’s a role for telemedicine to support you while you pour your life, skills, and family into your ministry work.
When you have a potential medical problem, what are your options? You may have access to qualified medical personnel in a proper clinical setting, and you might need to use a local clinic. Otherwise your options are to wait it out, praying, of course for God to intervene and provide healing. Quite often, those who call me asking me to put on my doctor’s hat have already searched the internet to find out what Dr. Google might diagnose. It’s likely that you’ve done the same and it’s likely that your ‘fatigue’ may be diagnosed as a ‘potential heart issue’ or your ‘headache’ is diagnosed as a ‘potential brain tumor.’ One thing is sure…Your search on the internet is not very reassuring! As I tell my patients, Dr. Google is not always wrong… But most of the time, an internet search is not sufficient.
Perhaps a better option is to have access to a vetted doctor who understands your cultural and geographical settings and the very limited resources available where you are posted. As telemedicine is becoming more medically acceptable and common in the west, it figures that telemedicine has a vital role to offer to those serving internationally. While real-time face to face interaction may be limited by bandwidth issues, keep in mind that advancement in communication is almost certain to permit this in the not too distant future. If at your post you have internet and phone service it is most certain that telemedicine can offer medical counsel and a fair measure of peace of mind. My conversations with my friends seeking medical advice are almost always by delayed interaction such as email or text, and this is adequate for most issues. They have access to someone who knows the context in which they are serving, and with a little back-and-forth texting, I can often figure out what is going on and what next steps are most appropriate.
Nothing hinders your work in an international setting like the uncertainty that you feel when you or a family member is struck by an illness and it's unclear what course of action should be considered. If, on the other hand, you could find the right person for advice then it might be as easy as picking up medicine the next time you or one of your team members goes to the city. You don’t have to ignore it. You don’t have to panic. Oh, to sleep better at night…
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