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ATA continues to stress international partnerships

By Eric Wicklund, Editor ATA 2012 Show Dailies

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Move. That one directive, issued toward the end of Sunday's 2012 International Telemedicine Forum, perhaps sums up best the challenge facing nations around the world. Many have launched or are in the process of launching their own telemedicine programs, but they'd like guidance on standards, legal issues and sustainable programs – advice that someone in another country could give them.

That's the challenge facing the American Telemedicine Association as it looks to become a more global organization. ATA President Bernard Harris Jr. (who noted wryly, "As an astronaut I've been over all the countries") opened Sunday's two-hour meeting by pointing out that international growth was one of his priorities and will be the priority of the incoming president, A. Stewart Ferguson.

"He's not from the United States – he's from Alaska," Harris joked.

Taking a more serious tone, he pointed out that the ATA, in the two years since it has adopted an international directive, has forged partnerships with more than a dozen telemedicine organizations around the world.

"I would like to see this expand," he said. 'I would like to see us develop a network of international organizations."

Giselle Ricur, MD, chairwoman of the ATA's International Telemedicine Special Interest Group and director of the telemedicine program at Instituto Zaldivar in Mendoza, Argentina, pointed out that 10 percent of the ATA's 4,500+ members lives outside the United States, representing some 45 nations. In addition, there are roughly 110 multi-national corporate members and more than 120 institutional members.

"The ATA's goal is to improve the delivery of healthcare throughout the world," she said.

Sunday's session included updates from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which endorsed a strategy last September to improve access to health resources through information and communication technologies; and the Ministry of Health of Brazil, which has active telehealth programs in 23 of its 27 states and whose leadership is pledging to develop telemedicine beyond its primary care routes.

"These types of initiatives require networking," Ricur pointed out, "and it has to be collaborative networking."

"Overall," she added, 'It's about sharing … best practices, lessons learned and challenges."

With more than 200 people filling the meeting room for Sunday's session, the number of countries represented was impressive – several from Latin and South America, a large contingent from India and Canada, and single voices or small groups from Australia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan, to name just a few. That representation was included in a roundtable discussion, featuring officials from Canada, Australia, the United States, India, France and Armenia.

Mark VanderWerf, director of eHealth for Minnesota-based Nonin Medical and the vice president of the ATA International Telemedicine SIG (he'll succeed Ricur at the end of the conference), noted that telemedicine is growing and evolving worldwide at a rapid rate. Whereas 15 years ago legal experts were worried about the liability of telemedicine programs, he said, nowadays they're more concerned about liability if there isn't a telemedicine program in place.

As well, he said, whereas two years ago the ATA had a handful of chapters outside the United States, it now has Memoranda of Understanding with at least 15 international programs, and a platform that encourages education on trade agreements, licensure, reimbursement and inter- and intra-state regulatory concerns.

"There's so much that we've been able to learn from each other," he said.

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