TIRANA, ALBANIA (Jan. 11, 2012) -- "One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody," said Mother Teresa, the Albanian Saint for whom the country's largest hospital is named. By connecting even the most remote regions of Albania to the global medical community, telemedicine is attempting to cure this disease.
Designated areas at the "Mother Teresa" University Hospital Center and three other major regional hospitals throughout Albania are being renovated to house new telemedicine and e-health centers.
Once the renovations, funded by the U.S. European Command and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District, are complete, the Albanian hospitals will be linked through a virtual network enabling high-quality, uniform health care for all citizens.
"Like many other developing countries, my country suffers from a lack of resources in the health sector," said Artian Dautaj, the humanitarian assistance program manager at the Office of Defense Cooperation, Tirana. "There is need for investment and improvement in infrastructure."
Currently, five of the 12 major regional hospitals in Albania are connected via a hub-and-spoke information technology system to the central e-heath center in Tirana. By March of this year, three additional hospitals will have the infrastructure in place to connect to the network.
"The telemedicine program aims to link different levels of health care to ensure a better functioning and sustainable system," said Dr. Agim Koçiraj, the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, local health specialist.
The telemedicine network will enable health care professionals to conduct e-learning, consultations and even diagnose patients from a distance.
"Residents from districts and regions can obtain diagnoses, treatment or a second opinion from a specialist at the Tirana University Hospital," said Dr. Erion Dasho, the USAID integrated telemedicine and e-health program local coordinator.
Regional doctors and nurses will soon have the medical expertise of specialists in Tirana at their fingertips and on their computer screens. Eventually, all major Albanian hospitals will connect to the hub in Tirana, and by extension, link to medical professionals throughout the U.S. and Europe.
"The average citizen will benefit from improved access to and quality of care," Dasho said.
The best medical advice in the country, region and world will soon be available to Albanian patients. Difficult medical cases will be tele-consulted through the virtual network, Dasho said.
The completion of this project will "reduce transfer from original hospitals to Tirana or hospitals abroad for treatment," Dautaj said.
The telemedicine idea, proposed in 2007 by the International Virtual e-Hospital Foundation and the University of Arizona swiftly won the backing of Albanian leadership.
"We have the support of the Prime Minister of Albania, Sali Berisha," Dautaj said. "He has been on TV talking about the program."
Once the Albanian government approved the telemedicine concept, EUCOM and USACE started working in tandem with USAID to bring telemedicine to the Balkan country.
"This is the first execution of a telemedicine project for EUCOM," Dautaj said.
The renovation work currently taking place is part of a larger project being coordinated with USAID and the Albanian Ministry of Health, or MOH.
"The EUCOM humanitarian assistance-funded portion is designed to renovate appropriate spaces in preparation for the installation and development of a national telemedicine network," Dautaj explained.
In each hospital, an e-health examining room, training room, server and technology room and an administrative office are being built. The $960,000 renovations provide new walls, windows, flooring, and upgraded heating, electrical and plumbing systems and roof replacements to house the new facilities. Once the renovations are finished, USAID will install equipment and provide training for hospital personnel, and the Albanian MOH will manage the telemedicine program.
The first four completely renovated e-health centers are expected to be handed over to the client ahead of schedule or on schedule in March 2012, said Brian Trzaska, USACE special projects civil engineer.
"Thank god we have the Corps [of Engineers]," Dautaj said. "We are very satisfied. They have been an asset."
The telemedicine program comes to fruition through the hard work and coordination of many U.S. and Albanian agencies.
"This is a team effort," Dautaj explained. "We are cooperating with USACE and USAID."
The renovation of all 12 e-health centers is anticipated to be complete by the end of 2013 or early 2014. Once the infrastructure is in place, USAID and the MOH will take the final steps to modernize Albanian health care.