Introduction: People living in many parts of the world have limited access to diagnostic studies and therapies for rheumatologic, musculoskeletal, and connective tissue diseases. The challenge has been particularly poignant for rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. Objectives: We report on the implementation of a telemedicine program in Iran for the evaluation and treatment of patients with rheumatologic and musculoskeletal diseases. More than 4,800 patients were seen remotely over a span of 5 years by a rheumatologist in the United States. The remote rheumatologist was aided by a general physician and a nurse at a local charity hospital in northeastern Iran that has a catchment area that includes rural regions extending to the border of Afghanistan. Seventy to 90 patients were evaluated online by the remote rheumatologist 3 days a week. A subset of patients was evaluated by the rheumatologist in person every 4 months. Materials and Methods: The population of rheumatology patients was evaluated using descriptive statistics. Information collected included demographic information consisting of age, gender, and primary rheumatologic diagnosis. Results: The average age of patients who were seen was 52 years and 89% of patients were women. Approximately 50% of patients were Afghan refugees. The most common disorders included osteoarthritis (1,149, 23.6%), rheumatoid arthritis (653, 13.4%), axial spondyloarthropathies (647, 13.3%), lumbar spinal stenosis (427, 8.8%), meniscal tear of the knee (326, 6.7%), and psoriatic arthritis (217, 4.5%). Certain conditions were lower than expected such as lupus (19, 0.4%) and fibromyalgia (169, 3.5%). Diagnostic tests included serologic tests (1,328, 27.3%), plain radiographs (946, 19.5%), magnetic resonance imaging (899, 18.5%), bone densitometry (147, 3.0%), and electromyography and nerve conduction study (132, 2.7%). The most common medications prescribed were non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (791, 16.3%), methotrexate (764, 15.7%), pregabalin (234, 4.8%), duloxetine (230, 4.7%), sulfasalazine (177, 3.6%), etanercept (97, 2.0%), tofacitinib (64, 1.3%), adalimumab (18, 0.4%), and infliximab (9, 0.2%). Conclusions: Telemedicine is becoming more prevalent. We report the successful use of this service in evaluation and management of rheumatic diseases in a region with limited access to rheumatologic care. We have shown that patients can be seen, evaluated, and successfully treated with a variety of medications, including biologic agents.
Keywords: rheumatology; rural health services; telehealth; telemedicine.