On last year’s World Refugee Day, June 20th, 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide had reached a staggering 51.2 million people. At the time, it marked the first instance in the post-World War II era that this figure had exceeded 50 million. But just two months ago, World Refugee Day in 2015 brought with it an unprecedented statistic. The UNHCR solemnly announced a total of 59.9 million people globally who had been forcibly displaced, marking the largest increase in displacement in a single year since UNHCR records began. Largely due to violence in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan, the refugee crisis shows no signs of slowing down and has been dubbed the worst refugee crisis of our era.
While access to quality health care is a grave issue within the war-torn countries causing the refugee crisis, it is equally concerning in refugee populations. In fact, refugee populations tend to have poorer health indicators than the countries which they left. Refugees most commonly suffer from diarrheal disease, measles, acute respiratory infections, malaria, malnutrition, and other infectious diseases. With limited access to health care, these treatable medical conditions spread rapidly and result in increased mortality rates.
Although telemedicine may not have all the answers, it’s potential in refugee health care is evident. Last year, Syrian refugees in Iraq experienced telemedicine when they were evaluated by an ophthalmologist from across the globe - in Panama! Telemedicine overcame geographic and resource barriers to allow these refugees access to quality health care they otherwise would not have been able to receive.
In another study, researchers examined the use of telepsychiatry on Syrian refugees. Local mental health providers used telemedicine to consult with experienced mental health providers abroad in order to better treat the refugee populations. Although limited to a three-month study, on six treatment-resistant cases, the study concluded that telepsychiatry was useful in providing supervision, education, and advice to mental health providers in conflict areas.
The two aforementioned applications of telemedicine in refugee areas shows just how effective telemedicine can be in the pursuit of universal health care. Not only is it a valuable resource within war-torn countries, but the range of possibilities for telemedicine in refugee health care are immense. As the field expands and becomes more prevalent, telemedicine could be the key to many questions posed by international health care providers!