Many developing countries don’t have enough doctors to meet their citizens’ healthcare needs. Radiologists are particularly hard to find in many places, but Lifetrack Medical Systems, a digital healthcare startup based in the Philippines, wants to improve the situation with innovative software and services.
Radiologists play an important role in medical systems everywhere. As specialists in the use of imaging techniques to see inside patients’ bodies, they support physicians in a wide range of specialties, from orthopedics to obstetrics. Their work is crucial for diagnosing and treating diseases of many kinds, so their absence can produce deadly bottlenecks in medical workflow.
Demographic trends in developing countries will likely exacerbate the radiology talent gap in the coming years. As economic growth improves living conditions in these countries, people everywhere are enjoying longer, healthier lives. That’s a good thing, but it also means people will live long enough to develop cancer, osteoporosis, cardiac issues, and other conditions that require radiology for diagnosis and treatment.
Tele-radiology services help address the problem by using high-speed Internet connections that enable remote reading of medical images. Their advent improved efficiencies in healthcare systems by globalizing the market for radiological services. Now, when readings are needed in places with no nearby radiologists on call, images can be sent to wherever a qualified professional is available.
Eric Schulze, CEO of Lifetrack Medical Systems, is one of the founding fathers of tele-radiology. After earning an MD-PhD from UC San Francisco in 1990 and completing a radiology residency at Harvard’s Mass General Hospital, he spent the early part of his career developing software systems for digital transmission and remote reading of medical images. He then built a successful tele-radiology business with offices around the world, including in far-flung locations like India, the Philippines, and Singapore.
Tele-radiology services are widely used today, but many developing countries still lack enough experienced radiologists to read images. The simple solution is to train more, but there’s a catch-22: as in many medical specialties, true radiology expertise can only be honed by apprenticing with an experienced practitioner.
Lifetrack works around this problem by using web-based applications to pair the apprentice (or “resident” in American parlance) with experienced practitioners, regardless of location. The system feeds medical images to residents, who make an initial reading in a browser-based viewer that supports their assessments with interactive educational materials and reference manuals. Residents then submit their reports online to a senior radiologist, who edits and sends them back with comments.
In addition to selling this software, Lifetrack also operates its own reading facility in Manila. After building radiology teams around the world, Schulze chose to set up shop in the Philippines because of the untapped talent he sees in the country. He says that Filipinos are easy to teach because they are open to criticism and eager to learn—qualities he didn’t always find among medical professionals in other emerging markets.
Schulze is also partnering with Duke-NUS, a collaboration between Duke University and the National University of Singapore, to repurpose Lifetrack’s software for its medical programs. Robert Kamei, Duke-NUS’s Vice Dean of Education, described the program as a “radiology residency in a box.” He envisions using it for next-generation e-learning programs that include mobile apps for training and online radiology certifications.
Services like this are certainly needed in the Southeast Asian countries where Lifetrack has gained initial traction. The region faces healthcare challenges that are common in the emerging world: underfunded healthcare systems, medical talent shortages, and rising incidence of non-communicable diseases that will increase demand for radiology services.
A 2009 study by Shih-chang Wang, a radiologist and professor at the University of Sydney, highlighted the scale of Southeast Asia’s radiologist shortage. Indonesia, for example, then had only 650 registered specialists in radiology for a population of 235 million. Other large countries like Thailand and Malaysia were not much better off. “Without enough radiologists,” says Schulze, “patients sometimes get the scalpel treatment when it’s not necessary, or don’t learn about major medical problems when they’re still treatable.”
Schulze is part of a growing group of visionary entrepreneurs who are setting up shop in the Philippines, which Techonomy identified earlier this year as an emerging hotbed for tech innovation. He’s also part of a rising cohort of healthcare professionals developing digital tools to address Southeast Asia’s yawning healthcare gaps. Technology continues to alter medicine, just as it is transforming so many fields.
Will Greene runs TigerMine Ventures, an advisory firm that helps investors, companies, entrepreneurs, and NGOs in Southeast Asia. He writes regularly for Techonomy about the region.