Global Health Informatics: The Impact of the Internet on Peru’s Healthcare System

| February 1, 2012 | 0 Comments

A typical Internet Cafe found in Peru. (Courtesy of Nicolas Nova, Flickr)

Information transfer through the Internet has rapidly transformed the doctor-patient relationship. Particularly in places like the U.S., almost everyone owns a computer and has easy access to a wide range of often valuable but conflicting health information with a simple mouse-click.

Specifically, the state of Peru’s health informatics system provides a lens into the transformation of the doctor-patient relationship that is resulting from Internet expansion in developing nations, and exposes a pressing need for educational training in the medical profession concerning the impactful use of these online resources.

Peru has one of the highest numbers of Internet users in public areas, totaling over 10 million users in 2006. “[In Peru,] Internet access has been promoted by Internet cafes. The poorest areas can now access the Internet, so [it] has become a potentially very important tool to empower people and give them access to information,” explained Dr. Walter Curioso, a professor at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH) in Lima and at the Biomedical and Health Informatics department at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

The Internet is serving as a new medium for Peru’s health systems to improve and expedite data acquisition, information transfer, and patient awareness. In a survey conducted in 2007, a staggering 93 percent of patients living with HIV/AIDS in Peru reported an interest in obtaining their lab results via the Internet.

As a result, the Peruvian National Institute of Health developed NETLab, a pioneer online system providing test results to patients. By 2008, over 900 patients living with HIV/AIDS were registered. Due to its success with patients, NETLab is now expanding to report patients’ lab results for other conditions.

Dr. Wafaie Fawzi, Chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health, addressed the potential impact of these online resources. “The Internet allows patients to be proactive in the management of their own conditions,” said Fawzi in an interview with the HCGHR.

Online tools like NETLab empower patients to access their own diagnostic information, resulting in more efficient clinical rounds. As Curioso noted, “[Patients] want health information, but sometimes the health professionals do not have the time to provide it.”

As for physician use of these online resources, a cross sectional survey of nearly 300 physicians in Peru revealed that 84.2 percent have used the Internet to seek medical information. In fact, several virtual libraries and online journals have recently gained popularity due to their provision of quick, relevant information to physicians, health care workers, and patients alike.

The Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI), managed by the World Health Organization, is one of the main initiatives present on the online healthcare scene to provide free or low-cost online access to over 8,000 international science journals.

Unfortunately, the presence of these helpful programs does not guarantee their regular use. In fact, physicians obtain most of their information by first consulting textbooks (69.1 percent), colleagues (50 percent), and then finally the Internet (32.9 percent).

Renzo Bustamante, a medical student at UPCH in Lima, commented in Curioso’s eHealth case study on Peru about the lack of training that students receive in this area. “The majority of students do not know how to search for the medical information they are looking for, and they do not even know how to access to specific journals,” Bustamante reported. “Most of my peers do not know how to perform a systematic search…most of them use Google, because [it] is easy and less complex.”

Accordingly, the major factors that hinder the effectiveness of training programs need to be addressed. Fawzi noted that the developing world faces obstacles such as the limited availability of adequately trained health workers, an inequitable distribution of workers, and a disparity between knowledge that is needed and knowledge that is available. He recommended a potential solution in which training in Internet utilization can be integrated into both pre-service and in-service training for medical professionals.

Category: Features, Spring 2011

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