Via E-Mail, Charity Links Sick People in Distant Areas to Specialists

Roger and Pat Swinfen manage the Swinfen Charitable Trust from their home in Wingham, England. The telemedicine charity has handled almost 1,800 cases since inception in 1998.
Roger and Pat Swinfen manage the Swinfen Charitable Trust from their home in Wingham, England. The telemedicine charity has handled almost 1,800 cases since inception in 1998. (By Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 24, 2008

WINGHAM, England -- Geese honked happily outside as Pat Swinfen sat in the study of her 16th-century farmhouse, cozy and warm amid thick Oriental carpets and a glowing wood fire.

Pure English countryside idyll -- except for the critically ill pregnant woman in Iraq desperately in need of a neurologist.

Swinfen, a retired nurse in her early 70s, sat at her computer and tapped out an e-mail, trying to connect doctors in Basra working on the woman, who had suffered a brain hemorrhage, with a renowned neurologist from Northern Ireland trekking in Nepal.

She soon had an e-mail response from the neurologist, who told Swinfen to forward details of the case.

The Swinfens run the Swinfen Charitable Trust, a telemedicine charity that uses e-mail to link sick people in poor, remote or dangerous parts of the world with hundreds of medical specialists in some of the world's finest hospitals.

Doctors in about 140 hospitals and clinics in 39 nations use the organization to seek help for patients requiring specialized care beyond their capabilities. Through the trust, they can be put in e-mail contact -- often within hours -- with one or more of the 400 specialists who work without pay as part of the trust's network.

Doctors in distant areas, including Afghanistan, Antarctica and the Solomon Islands, e-mail photos (many taken with digital cameras supplied by the Swinfens), X-rays, test results and case notes. The information is reviewed by specialists, who respond by e-mail to help make diagnoses and recommend treatments.

The only thing linking all the need and all the expertise is a desktop computer in the Swinfens' home, an improbable global nerve center set amid a cherry orchard and wheat fields in the soft English hills about 75 miles southeast of London.

"Help is just an e-mail away," said Swinfen, who runs the operation with her husband, Roger Swinfen, a retired army officer and member of Britain's House of Lords.

Neither had used a computer before they began the operation on their 36th wedding anniversary in 1998. Their system has since handled almost 1,800 cases and saved numerous lives.

"This is a simple solution that works," said Karen Rheuban, a pediatric cardiologist with the University of Virginia Health System and president-elect of the American Telemedicine Association.

Rheuban said the U.S. military runs a similar system for service members in the field, and many organizations, including U-Va., run extensive telemedicine programs that incorporate videoconferencing. But that requires high-speed broadband and other equipment not often available in the world's remoter areas.

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