VANCOUVER, Washington — Doctors Without Borders often elicits the image of doctors working in makeshift camps, providing medical care with few resources and technology. The Doctors Without Borders website reinforces that this is the reality. A slideshow on the homepage flips through photographs of doctors assisting patients with little more than a stethoscope and a few IVs. However, a new reality for Doctors Without Borders emerged in 2011, when Virtual Radiologic (vRad) partnered with the organization to provide radiological expertise from doctors all over the world.
Virtual Radiologic is a teleradiology practice that partners with radiologists and hospitals to provide efficient, accurate diagnostic radiology services. Using advanced technology, radiologists are able to receive and interpret images, and then submit reports based on their findings — all from their home offices. Virtual Radiologic’s partnership with Doctors Without Borders provides patients with specialized care and expertise that would otherwise be impossible to receive on site.
Dr. Samir Shah, a radiologist with vRad, began participating in the partnership at its beginning in 2011. “It’s a serious problem that patients don’t have access to radiologists,” said Shah. “Other physicians don’t have the expertise to interpret CTs, MRIs, and other types of images.”
By providing their services, vRad radiologists can deliver incredibly accurate diagnoses. Additionally, they are confronted with issues that they don’t see every day. “It’s incredibly rewarding to treat patients with issues that don’t really exist in the US,” said Shah.
The partnership reads for various countries, however, Shah specified that Haiti, the Central African Republic and Uzbekistan are their three main sites. In Uzbekistan, doctors often see cases of tuberculosis, which has reemerged as a widespread epidemic. vRad is especially helpful because “patients need radiologist expertise because TB can manifest itself in very specific ways on x-rays,” according to Shah.
Other issues associated with compromised immune systems are common as well. In Haiti, parasitic and fungal infections are quite common, as well as other malignancies and multi-system injuries which Shah recognizes are “much more intense due to poverty.”
Of course, the procedure for Virtual Radiologic radiologists is vastly different than other Doctors Without Borders physicians, due to the fact that the radiologists are working from their offices rather than on-site.
“Doctors Without Borders doctors are recruited because they need special expertise on the diseases,” said Shah.
Once the radiologists are chosen, the company attempts to make the workflow seamless for radiologists by adding just 30 minutes per month (the time it takes to read three to four cases) of strictly Doctors Without Borders cases.
The process, as explained by Shah, is quite simple. Images are taken at the site and then transferred to a location where they can be uploaded digitally. The images are sent to radiologists who read them and send back a report. The report is put on a flash drive and then delivered back to the site where the patient is being treated. While there are many steps in the process, they allow for a specialist to read the images and provide a specific diagnosis.
The initial set-up and long-term maintenance of the equipment presents the biggest challenge to telemedicine’s involvement with Doctors Without Borders. Keeping a secure Internet connection and providing routine maintenance and upkeep of imaging machines is an essential part of insuring the program runs smoothly.
In the future, Shah hopes to see more African countries and countries in the Indian subcontinent included in the program. Additionally, he feels that collaborating with other charitable radiology organizations could prove to be advantageous.
“We need to band together and figure out how to best use our resources,” Shah said.