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Table of Contents    
Year : 2016  |  Volume : 64  |  Issue : 5  |  Page : 934-940

Telestroke in resource-poor developing country model

1 Department of Neurology, Indira Gandhi Medical College, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India
2 Department of Neurology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India
3 Department of Neurology, Dr. Rajendra Prasad Government Medical College, Tanda, Himachal Pradesh, India
4 Department of Radiology, Indira Gandhi Medical College, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India

Date of Web Publication12-Sep-2016

Correspondence Address:
Sudhir Sharma
Department of Neurology, Indira Gandhi Medical College, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0028-3886.190243

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 » Abstract 

Context: Telemedicine is a major effort to tackle the uneven availability of facilities for thrombolysis in acute ischemic stroke. We present a telestroke model introduced in a small hilly state of Himachal Pradesh in India.
Aims: To provide acute ischemic stroke treatment with tissue plasminogen activator in all district hospitals of Himachal Pradesh with computerized axial tomographic scan facility through Telemedicine.
Settings and Design: Smartphone-based hub and spoke telestroke model was used with two tertiary care hospitals (with neurologists) as hub and 17 district hospitals (without onsite neurologists) as spokes.
Subject and Methods: The telestroke project was launched in the state of Himachal Pradesh in April 2014. Medical officers in district hospitals (Medicine graduates and Internal Medicine postgraduates) were trained in the treatment of stroke through workshops. Tissue plasminogen activator was made available at all these centers, free of cost through hospital pharmacies. Four neurologists at two tertiary care centers were made available for consultation on phone.
Results: Between June 2014 and May 2015, a total of 26 patients received thrombolysis under the telestroke project at nine district hospitals without onsite presence of a neurologist. Eight patients were females and 18 males. The age of patients ranged from 26 to 80 years. Only 2 patients developed an intracranial bleed following thrombolysis, and both were nonfatal.
Conclusions: Smartphone-based telestroke services may be a much cheaper alternative to video-conferencing-based telestroke services and are more portable with less technical glitches. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first telestroke model being reported from India. It seems to be the way forward in providing timely treatment in acute ischemic stroke in underserved and resource poor settings.

Keywords: Acute ischemic stroke; telemedicine, telestroke; thrombolysis

How to cite this article:
Sharma S, Padma M V, Bhardwaj A, Sharma A, Sawal N, Thakur S. Telestroke in resource-poor developing country model. Neurol India 2016;64:934-40

How to cite this URL:
Sharma S, Padma M V, Bhardwaj A, Sharma A, Sawal N, Thakur S. Telestroke in resource-poor developing country model. Neurol India [serial online] 2016 [cited 2023 Mar 27];64:934-40. Available from: https://www.neurologyindia.com/text.asp?2016/64/5/934/190243

 » Introduction Top

Treatment of acute ischemic stroke (AIS) has seen remarkable advances in the last two decades. Early treatment of AIS within 4.5 h with intravenous tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) reduces neurological impairment and disability.[1],[2],[3] The earlier it is administered, the better is the effect and the lower is the rate of hemorrhagic complications.[3] Therefore, thrombolysis has become the cornerstone of AIS therapy; however, its widespread use is hindered by a number of obstacles, the most restrictive of which is the narrow therapeutic time window. It is due to this reason that even in countries with the best health care settings and favorable neurologist: population ratio, less than 5% of patients with ischemic strokes receive thrombolysis.[4] Yet, thrombolysis with tPA is at present the best available treatment for AIS. While awaiting new therapies, implementing the administration of intravenous thrombolysis in a larger proportion of AIS patients is a major challenge.

Telemedicine enables a medical consultation to occur when the physician and the patient are in different locations. It is a major effort to tackle the uneven availability of facilities for thrombolysis in AIS. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that thrombolysis, when given using telestroke consultation, is as safe and effective as when it is given in a stroke center, and there are specific American Heart Association/American Stroke Association statements detailing the evidence for its use along with guidelines for its implementation.[5],[6],[7] The term “telestroke” has been defined as “live, audio-video telecommunication applied to the care of acute stroke.” Telemedicine for stroke management is a level 1, class A recommendation when a vascular neurologist is absent. However, current telestroke networks require exorbitant startup costs, which are prohibitive for the resource poor countries in which they are needed the most. To deliver this treatment in resource poor settings, therefore, becomes all the more challenging. Telemedicine in AIS has been practiced by a number of technological devices that are less sophisticated than video-conferencing, including telephones,[8] multimedia messaging service,[9] email, or some combination methods. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that high-quality telestroke consultations can be performed with mobile computers and smartphones [10],[11],[12],[13] enhancing the portability of the service.

Stroke and India

The disease burden of stroke in India is very large with more than 1.5 million stroke cases per year. The costs involved in caring for residual disabilities such as physical dependence, cognitive decline, depression, and seizures in addition to the costs of stroke care are enormous and have adverse social implications. A prompt affirmative action is imperative to prevent this cascading disease burden in the Indian society.[14] Stroke mortality rate in India is 22 times that of malaria and 1.4 times that of tuberculosis (Indian Council of Medical Research census).

The small number of neurologists present in India implies that most stroke care will have to be provided by other physicians and health care providers. These factors impede access to acute care and ongoing follow-up for primary and secondary prevention.

Telestroke facilities through telemedicine seem to be the “promise,” which has the potential to optimize stroke care across all strata, bridging the economic and geographic barriers in the country. Significant proportion of patients in remote locations could be successfully managed locally with advice/guidance from specialists/superspecialists in the cities without having to travel to reach the specialists in person. Telestroke facilities can make modern healthcare available and accessible to remote areas using information technology. Telestroke can also play a significant role in training medical personnel across the country. Decrease in the price and complexity of this technology over the last decade has made it economically viable for India. Telestroke can serve to address the problems of both insufficient numbers of stroke specialists as well as the narrow therapeutic time range for treatment with recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (rTPA). The diagnosis of stroke can be made expediently and remotely. Telestroke offers the promise to more consistently apply protocols and improve efficiency of stroke care. In essence, it would allow patients in more remote areas a chance for procuring comprehensive stroke care. With this background, the government of Himachal Pradesh initiated the Himachal Pradesh (HP) model of telestroke in March 2014; the 1 year experience with the model is described below.

 » Subject and Methods Top

Himachal Pradesh telestroke network: Area

Himachal Pradesh is a small hilly state in the Northern part of India [Figure 1]. Covering an area of 55,673 km (34,594 mi), it is a mountainous state. It has a population of 6,856,509 with a population density of 123/km 2, 90% of the population lives in villages, as per the provisional results of the Census of India 2011. It has 12 districts. The population in the respective districts ranges from 32000 to 1.5 crore. It has two tertiary care hospitals with four neurologists, two in each hospital. Hence, given the difficult terrain and only four neurologists residing in that area, delivering stroke treatment seemed like a distant dream.
Figure 1: Location of Himachal Pradesh on the map of India

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However, in March 2014, under the guidance of Stroke Specialists from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi and on the initiative of Secretary of Health, Himachal Pradesh, a Telestroke Project was envisaged. All the government hospitals with computed tomographic (CT) scan facility were roped in. Out of 17 such hospitals, eight and nine centers, respectively, were attached to each of the two tertiary care centers [Figure 2]. Workshops were conducted at various district hospitals. Medical officers in these hospitals (Medicine graduates and Internal Medicine postgraduates) were trained in recognizing stroke through these workshops. They were taught to read plain CT scan of the head to rule out hemorrhage even without the help of a radiologist and written protocols for thrombolysis in ischemic stroke with explicit inclusion and exclusion criteria were provided. Blood sugar and electrocardiogram (ECG) were the only other investigations performed apart from the CT scan of the head, before the institution of thrombolysis. tPA was made available at all these centers and was provided free of cost through the hospital pharmacies. All the four neurologists were made available on phone 24 × 7, and whenever any patient suffering from ischemic stroke came in the window period, they were contacted. It was decided to use the social networking sites such as “WhatsApp” for transmitting CT scan images to neurologists for consultation. These hospitals were then designated as primary stroke centers. Without any additional infrastructure requirement or any new manpower, the project was finally launched in May-June 2014 amid much skepticism regarding its success.
Figure 2: Himachal Pradesh telestroke network

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 » Results Top

Within 1 month, for the first time in the state, a patient of AIS was successfully thrombolyzed at a district hospital without onsite presence of a neurologist. A 75-year-old male who had presented within 40 min of developing a right hemiparesis with a power of 1/5 in the right upper limb and 3/5 in the right lower limb was given tPA after exclusion of hemorrhage with the door-to-needle time of 40 min. At discharge, he had a power of 3/5 in the upper limb and 5/5 in the lower limb. The successful management of this patient proved the feasibility of the telestroke project and then there was no looking back. Till May 2015, a total of 26 patients had received thrombolysis under the telestroke project at the primary stroke centers [Table 1]. Eight patients were female and 18 were males [Figure 3]. The age of the patients ranged from 26 to 80 years. Only 2 patients developed intracranial hemorrhage following their thrombolysis, both of which were nonfatal, and there was no acute in-hospital mortality. During the same period in Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC) at Shimla, which is the biggest tertiary care center of Himachal Pradesh, 22 patients received thrombolysis [Figure 4]. This showed that the primary stroke centers provided treatment to more AIS patients and the difference is bound to widen even more in the future [Figure 5]. All this has been achieved without any additional infrastructure and manpower. All the patients at primary stroke centers were thrombolyzed by physicians (Internal Medicine postgraduates), and in centers where physicians were not posted, no thrombolysis was reported.
Table 1: List of primary stroke centers where thrombolysis with tissue plasminogen activator was done

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Figure 3: Month-wise thrombolysis at primary stroke centers

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Figure 4: Month-wise thrombolysis at one of the tertiary stroke center (IGMC, Shimla)

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Figure 5: Month-wise comparison of thrombolysis between primary stroke centers and tertiary stroke center (IGMC, Shimla)

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An illustrative case

A 42-year-old male presented at the district hospital Kullu (about 220 km from IGMC, Shimla, a journey of approximately 7 h by road) with the history of weakness of the right side of body of 1 h duration at 16.00 h. At presentation, he had right facial weakness with 0/5 power in the right upper limb and 2/5 in the right lower limb. There was no speech or sensory involvement. His National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) score was 10. His blood pressure was 136/84 mmHg and blood sugar was 87 mg/dl. His electrocardiogram (ECG) was normal. His noncontrast CT scan of the head was done at 16:24 h, and the neurologist at IGMC, Shimla was contacted on the phone. The CT scan head images were sent via WhatsApp at 16:44 h [Figure 6]. It showed hypodensity in the left occipital region suggestive more of a sequel of a chronic infarct than a fresh lesion. The site of lesion also did not clinically correlate with the neurological deficit. The opinion of the neuroradiologist at IGMC was also taken by showing him the WhatsApp images and he, too, was of the same opinion. The neurologist finally gave a 'go ahead' for the procedure of thrombolysis at17:05 h and the patient was thrombolyzed with 50 mg of tPA. Twenty four hours later, he had 2/5 power in the upper limb and 4/5 in the lower limb with a NIHSS of 6. At 1 month follow-up, he had a modified Rankin Score of 2 with mild facial weakness persisting.
Figure 6: WhatsApp transmission of computed tomographic images

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 » Discussion Top

The stroke care scenario is grim in India with one neurologist for 3,200,000 population in 1998, and one neurologist for 1,250,000 people, as per the 2008 estimate.[15] There is a need to explore alternative options to tackle the rising burden of stroke. With less than 1500 neurologists for a billion plus population, acute stroke care will remain an unfulfilled quest unless it is also delegated to physicians and even medicine postgraduate students. The challenge, therefore, lies in turning all physicians and medical postgraduate students into stroke physicians. Telemedicine offers a ray of hope in widening the reach of stroke care without compromising on quality. It can be helpful not only in the management of the usual atherothrombotic and embolic strokes but also in the diagnosis and treatment of unusual strokes which comprise 6% of all cerebral infarctions.[16] Telemedicine is currently being used in India for diagnosing stroke patients, subtyping stroke as ischemic or hemorrhagic, and in treating the patient accordingly.[17] However, a dedicated telestroke system for providing acute stroke care is needed and remains a formidable task with the currently prevalent poor resources and manpower.

With ever improving technology, cheaper alternatives such as smartphones may turn out to be the game changer in acute stroke care. There are two published randomized controlled trials of telestroke versus telephone methods of consultation for consideration of thrombolysis for AIS.[18],[19] The first trial, published in 2008, which randomized 222 patients (111 for each study arm) with AIS to either telephone-only or telestroke-guided evaluation concluded that the rtPA decision was adjudicated to be correct significantly more often with telestroke (98%) than telephone (82%) consultations. The second trial in which 54 patients participated (27 for each arm) concluded that rtPA decision making was similar as well as equally effective between the telephone (89%) and telestroke (85%) groups. Technical issues were frequent in the telestroke arm. More importantly, in both the trials, there were no differences in 90-day mortality or outcome nor were there any differences in the rate of hemorrhage.[19] A pooled analysis of these identically designed trials supports the conclusions of the original trial, with a correct rtPA decision significantly more likely with telestroke (96%) versus telephone (83%), with an excellent frequency of rtPA usage (26%) and no difference in the mortality rates, outcomes, or hemorrhage.[20] However, the above trials were not smartphone-based. The smartphone incorporates some of the feature of video-conferencing such as the transmission of the CT scan images and audiovisual transmission. That smartphones are viable tools for sending the CT scan images and carrying out the NIHSS scoring has been demonstrated in subsequent trials.[12],[21]

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first published smartphone-based experience of telemedicine in acute stroke care in India. As the objective was to demonstrate its feasibility, there was less emphasis on data collection regarding stroke performance indicators such as door-to-CT scan time and door-to-needle time. Now that its feasibility has been demonstrated, the next step would be to apply various protocols measuring the stroke performance indicators to document its efficiency. Telemedicine in stroke is highly underutilized at present in India while the world has moved on to concepts such as stroke emergency mobile unit.[22],[23] With ever improving technology, smartphone-based telestroke services may not only be a much cheaper alternative to video-conferencing-based telestroke services but also be more portable, equally efficient, and with less technical glitches. It seems to be the way forward in providing timely treatment in AIS in under-served and resource-poor settings.

What are the anticipated barriers for establishing/functioning of telestroke in India?

  • Clinical: Lack of stroke awareness among patients and caregivers and their inability to recognize the manifestations of stroke, as well as a lack of specific expertise in managing stroke, Lack of knowledge and cooperation among first–contact physicians; and, the “pushback” culture among health care providers who do not wish to “lose” patients to other systems. The 'hub and spoke wheel' system needs to be created in India. Proper certification and empowerment need to be given for the identified 'hub and spoke' hospitals
  • Research: Lack of funding opportunities for telemedicine research. Lack of public–private partnerships indigenous to the country
  • Finances: Considerable financial help will be required for the development of infrastructure support. Public–private partnerships are still in their infancy and are unable to receive encouragement from the governmental policymakers and enforcers
  • Medicolegal: Increasing trend for “frivolous” public litigation and for establishing culpability may be of concern
  • Education: Existing scenario reveals large areas in geographic isolation wherein educational and awareness programs are nonexistent.

Proposed solutions

  1. Clinical

    • Establish a dedicated nation-wide helpline number for operation of emergency medical services
    • Upgrade the existing emergency medical services with swift, well-equipped and adequate number of ambulances with sophisticated telecommunications equipment mounted on them.
    • Creation of “spoke” hospitals and creation of operational “wheels” for the 'hub and spoke' model of telestroke. Indian Stroke Association can be the regulatory body to oversee the endorsement of such centers
    • Demonstration of pilot projects for proof of principle in the development of spoke sites.

  2. Research

    • Adequate appropriation of funds for stroke and cardiovascular disease research by apex governmental scientific agencies and public–private partnerships as well as philanthropic organizations.

  3. Financial

    • Funds for initiation, development, and maintenance of telestroke programs to be allocated in the National Health Plans.

  4. Medicolegal

    • Develop user-friendly national legislation for licenses, compliance, liability, and privacy issues for telestroke services.

  5. Education

    • Implement community education and awareness programs. Physician education is required for acute stroke diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and rehabilitation.

What resources can be used?

  • Stroke ambassadors
  • Indian Stroke Association
  • Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
  • Patient Advocacy Organizations
  • Philanthropic Agencies
  • Religious Institutions and Bodies

Recommendations for starting the telestroke program in India

  • Conduct surveys among district hospitals equipped with 24 × 7 radiology services to assess resources and internet facilities in order to combine them in the “stroke network” as potential “spoke” hospitals
  • Assess the current/local emergency medical services and plan/implement upgradation/optimization of these services to best equip the telestroke facility, once the facility is initiated
  • Conduct local feasibility studies between the two hospitals in the same geographically defined region as a pilot feasibility project
  • Develop a “road-map” using the information gathered by the above surveys
  • Use of smartphones and applications such as “WhatsApp” for easy access to images and information
  • Initially target “spoke” hospitals that can transfer patients within 60–90 min and further expand the network to remote and interior parts of the country in a phased approach
  • Investigators in the telestroke program need to be provided “protected time”
  • The desirable elements for designating a hospital as a “spoke” center include a 24 × 7 CT scan facility (with an in-house and continuously available radiographer); availability of 24 × 7 physician response; identification of physician champion (who serves in a leadership capacity to promote and implement changes that benefit both physicians as well as their patients); stroke education; established protocols for contacting the “hub” system; and, laboratory services for basic chemistry and coagulation studies
  • The desirable elements for designating a hospital as a 'hub' center include the existence of a fully functional intensive care unit; neurosurgical expertise; neurointerventional capabilities; stroke unit; and, rehabilitation services
  • The specific medico-legal recommendations include ensuring privacy of patient information; documentation of patient encounters at 'hub and spoke' centers; and, documentation of physician expertise at the 'spoke' center
  • Educational aspects: Create education modules; NIHHS and modified Rankin scale certification programs to all stroke personnel at 'hub and spoke' centers; sharing of guideline statements; and, nursing and rehabilitation education
  • Research recommendations: Conduct education at remote sites (cessation of smoking, diabetes and hypertension prevention and control, nutritional education, etc.); evaluate feasibility of transient ischemic attack/secondary stroke prevention clinics at remote sites. Assess acute stroke treatment using telestroke. Assess quality measures.

 » Conclusions Top

The disease burden of stroke in India is very large with more than 1.5 million stroke cases per year. The costs involved in caring for residual disabilities such as physical dependence, cognitive decline, depression, and seizures, in addition to costs of stroke care, are enormous and have adverse social implications. India is characterized by low penetration of healthcare services. The rural and remote areas continue to suffer from absence of quality healthcare.

Telestroke facilities through telemedicine seem to be the “promise,” which has the potential to optimize stroke care across all strata, bridging the economic and geographic barriers in the country. Telestroke can also play a significant role in training medical personnel across the country. The decrease in the cost and the complexity of this technology over the last decade makes it economically viable for India. Telestroke offers the promise to more consistently apply protocols and improve efficiency of stroke care. In essence, it would give patients staying in remote areas a chance for obtaining comprehensive stroke care.

Financial support and sponsorship

Department of Health and Family Welfare, Himachal Pradesh.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

 » References Top

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Hacke W, Donnan G, Fieschi C, Kaste M, von Kummer R, Broderick JP, et al. Association of outcome with early stroke treatment: Pooled analysis of ATLANTIS, ECASS, and NINDS rt-PA stroke trials. Lancet 2004;363:768-74.  Back to cited text no. 3
Allen NB, Kaltenbach L, Goldstein LB, Olson DM, Smith EE, Peterson ED, et al. Regional variation in recommended treatments for ischemic stroke and TIA: Get with the Guidelines-Stroke 2003-2010. Stroke 2012;43:1858-64.  Back to cited text no. 4
Schwamm LH, Holloway RG, Amarenco P, Audebert HJ, Bakas T, Chumbler NR, et al. A review of the evidence for the use of telemedicine within stroke systems of care: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke 2009;40:2616-34.  Back to cited text no. 5
Schwamm LH, Audebert HJ, Amarenco P, Chumbler NR, Frankel MR, George MG, et al. Recommendations for the implementation of telemedicine within stroke systems of care: A policy statement from the American Heart Association. Stroke 2009;40:2635-60.  Back to cited text no. 6
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Audebert HJ, Boy S, Jankovits R, Pilz P, Klucken J, Fehm NP, et al. Is mobile teleconsulting equivalent to hospital-based telestroke services? Stroke 2008;39:3427-30.  Back to cited text no. 10
Gonzalez MA, Hanna N, Rodrigo ME, Satler LF, Waksman R. Reliability of prehospital real-time cellular video phone in assessing the simplified National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale in patients with acute stroke: A novel telemedicine technology. Stroke 2011;42:1522-7.  Back to cited text no. 11
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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6]

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Online since 20th March '04
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