Joan Brown

Opening up the opportunities of tele-medicine for the benefit of the whole sector

International sight-saving organisation Orbis was a pioneer in harnessing the potential of tele-education. What started as a simple sequence of e-mail messages during a 1998 Orbis programme to Havana, Cuba, developed into the full-fledged telemedicine program called Cyber-Sight®. Originally envisioned as an effective way to maintain contact between Orbis volunteer faculty (VF) and partner doctors, Cyber-Sight has become a comprehensive distance learning and mentoring platform. As Director of Telemedicine and Program Technology Joan Brown leads the Cyber-Sight team and drives strategy, innovation and ongoing improvements to the platform.

The easily accessible open-source ophthalmic education portal enables Orbis to build up the capacity of partners around the world to reach a common goal of preventing and treating avoidable blindness.

Cyber-Sight leverages technology to connect eye health providers globally to share insight, best practices, resources, and learning opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable to countless healthcare workers worldwide.

Cyber-Sight is proven to be an effective tool in supporting Orbis’s goal to increase the capacity of ophthalmic care globally, by leveraging an online tool to multiply the efforts of a few volunteers to reach numerous clinicians in developing nations.

The challenges

Cyber-Sight faces both incredible opportunity as well as a host of unique challenges. On the one hand, as a web-based solution the potential to reach a global audience is exponentially greater than on-the-ground efforts. However, with that opportunity comes the challenge of ensuring that the people who will benefit most from the service are able to access it in the first place. The high cost of devices, equipment, electricity and internet connectivity must be considered in a technology-based approach. Furthermore, the quality of internet connectivity in rural areas for the people who have it is a tremendous concern given the uses of Cyber-Sight.

Cultural differences, language barriers, computer/technology literacy are additional factors that further complicate the Cyber-Sight project overall. The system must be intuitive enough for users with a broad spectrum of computer experience. As a global platform it must also appeal to users with a varied cultural background, regardless of language.

Finally, given its web-based nature, Cyber-Sight has a disadvantage in the realm of human-to-human interaction. On-the-ground efforts benefit from the emotional connection that can be made by working toward a common goal with the person standing next to you—a benefit that Cyber-Sight lacks. Cyber-Sight must therefore overcome the challenge of supporting the intangible connections that can be made in the combined effort to overcome and prevent blindness the world over.

The solutions

The suite of Cyber-Sight services is comprised of three main components, which were specially designed to meet the basic needs of eye health professionals in the developing world, in a coordinated and integrated fashion:

  • Cyber-Sight Resources offers free access to publications, journals and manuals. 
  • Cyber-Sight Learning is an online residency-level training program that offers wide-ranging educational content.
  • Cyber-Sight Consultation is a unique virtual case management service which has played a crucial role in improving the healthcare of more than 10,000 patients worldwide. This service allows clinicians in the developing world to consult with expert mentors in any subspecialty on their patient cases.

Joan is currently spearheading an overhaul of this system in order to further improve and expand its support of healthcare workers worldwide.

With her influence the new system will support all cadres of the ophthalmic healthcare workforce. It will also allow a local ophthalmologist to seek advice from expert ophthalmologists that reside in their region and can provide a more location-specific perspective than was previously available. In the spirit of global accessibility the system will not only support multiple languages, but also translation, effectively eliminating the existing language barrier. Mobile app and multi-device functionality will further improve accessibility for an increasingly technology-aware population.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Cyber-Sight is the opportunity to further unify international NGO efforts. Joan envisions Cyber-Sight as a platform wherein collaboration between organisations working to treat and prevent blindness can thrive. It is her hope that other NGOs acknowledge the impact that is possible with the use of such a system as described above and that Cyber-Sight will become a joint effort and resource. As the common ground for all eye health related NGOs, Cyber-Sight could support cross-organisational coordination and impact many more lives than would be possible otherwise.