Tele-medicine to revolutionise delivery of rural health services in Zambia

A  mobile tele-medicine application has been designed specifically for the needs of rural health Clinical Officers in Zambia by Landmark Information Group. The App has been developed for the Virtual Doctors Services a UK charity that has partnered with the Ministry of Health to provide virtual diagnostic services to health workers in the rural parts of the country through Tele-medicine.

And Zambia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom His Excellency Mr. Muyeba Chikonde says the innovative app and the efforts of Virtual Doctors Services will compliment Government’s effort of providing equity, cost-effective, quality health care as close to the family as possible especially in rural and remote areas of Zambia.

This was at the launch of the Virtual Doctors Work in Zambia dubbed “Where Medicine, Technology and Goodwill Meet” held at the Prestigious and historical Royal Geographical Society in London. Trustees and supporters of the Virtual Doctors were joined at the Royal Geographic Society on Thursday, 17th March by celebrities, politicians, medical and business professionals and technology specialists to hear about the work of the charity delivering a ground breaking telemedicine service into rural health Centres in Zambia.  His Excellency, Mr Muyeba Chikonde, the High Commissioner for Zambia in the UK was the guest of honour and was joined by over 100 guests in the historic hall.

The app which has been designed by one of  UK’s leading provider of land and property search information, digital mapping and environmental risk reports for property professionals, is a bespoke software that acts as an interface between the rural health workers in Zambia who are mainly Clinical Officers and the pool of Medical specialists in the UK thereby assisting in the diagnosis and treatment of patients via mobile connectivity.

The Virtual Doctors service provides rural health centres with a tablet computer with built in camera, and the bespoke telemedicine software, built for rural Africa. When a patient with a complex or unusual condition presents, the Clinical Officer creates a patient file with examination notes and photos and uploads it to the cloud. A doctor in the UK then reviews the file and offers diagnostic and treatment advice.

Huw Jones, the founder of the charity (Virtual Doctors Service) and who is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, captured the audience’s attention when he shared his emotive story of what inspired him to want to help those in rural Zambia.

“Several years ago in 1998, as a British Safari guide in remote Zambia, after coming across a desperate man trying to cycle with his heavily pregnant and haemorrhaging wife to a hospital along a dirt road, 60 kilometres distant, I attempted to help the couple but the sense of helplessness gripped me when she passed away in my vehicle enroute to the hospital. I then decided that I needed to do something.  But what?  After talking to Doctors in other countries I realised that there were a lot of people who had the professional ability and wanted to help to but were too far away, the solution was obviously- telemedicine,” said Mr. Jones

 

He said with the coming of the mobile technology revolution in Africa, it was possible to connect doctors anywhere in the world remotely to any rural clinic in Zambia.

“The poor lady on the bicycle could not be saved but the sheer determination of her husband has spurred me on till today and I truly believe that the Virtual Doctors Service will help to save lives in the future,” he said.

“After several Milestones, my dream is coming true and with the support of others we are beginning to offer help to reduce unnecessary referrals and help improve the local primary health care system in some of the most remote and impoverished areas of Africa.” He added.

The Virtual Doctors is a unique service. The simple technology and medicine or ‘telemedicine’ software, designed with rural Africa in mind, connects remote healthcare workers, mainly Clinical Officers, with a panel of medical experts who give diagnosis and treatment advice. As a result, patients are diagnosed more quickly and more often treated in their communities. The developer of the application, Landmark Information Group spared their personal time to develop the new mobile telemedicine application with extensive consultations from Doctors, clinical officers and other stakeholders in Zambia to specifically develop it for the needs of rural health workers in Zambia and Africa in general.

And Mr. Chikonde who was invited to present a special Spotlight Award to Landmark Information Group in recognition of their selfless contribution of their own free time in developing the software said that even though government, since 1998, has invested a lot in the improvement of the health sector infrastructure and roads especially the last four years  which has seen the rapid construction of hospitals and health posts in Provinces and districts,  this has not been matched with the human resource requirement as such tele-medicine will for a long time to come, go a long way in bridging this gap.

 

“It takes much more time to produce a medical doctor, let alone a specialist, than it does to construct a clinic or hospital. It is also a fact that there are more doctors in the urban areas than rural and more people live in the rural areas than in urban and therefore, government’s partnership with the Virtual Doctors provides an opportunity for the delivery of quality health care to our rural population.” He said.

“The use of Tele-medicine will assist government in reducing the cost of transporting patients to referral or higher level hospitals. Additionally, our people in rural areas will be able to access specialist treatment in their home environment without having to be referred to the capital cities which causes hardships amongst families especially the care givers. The number of referrals will reduce tremendously and this pilot project once duplicated across the country will result in immense savings for government and rationalise the available but scarce human resource.” He said.

” I further invite our qualified medical practitioners in the diaspora to join this pool of specialist doctors so that they are able to contribute to the improvement of the lives of their fellow Zambians without having to travel to Zambia. I am aware that the Virtual Doctors are still looking for volunteers,” he added.

Mr. Chikonde said that Landmark Information Group and Virtual Doctors had shown the true spirit of what is termed in Southern Africa as “Ubuntu” –  which is Human-ness or the belief in the universal bond of giving and sharing that connects all humanity adding that we should all emulate to give without expecting anything in return.

The High Commissioner was accompanied to the launch by Ms Millica Mutale, First Secretary Political and Administration and Mr Donald Pelekamoyo, First Secretary Tourism who added colour to the event with magnificent display of Zambia’s tourism potential.

Since 1998 when Hue Jones encountered the unfortunate incidence in rural Zambia, the following milestones have been reached;

2007 Development of first concept of mobile clinics

2011 Initial trial of telemedicine concept in Kafue District, using one Virtual Doctor in New York and satellite communications

2013 Pilot project, using 20 Virtual Doctors and the mobile broadband network, launched in six rural health centres with the Ministry of Health, Zambia

2015 Development of bespoke telemedicine software and planned implementation into National Training College, Chainama. Expansion to more rural health centres in Zambia

Last year, the Virtual Doctors donated an ultrasound machine to the Ministry of Health specifically to Chongwe District Hospital and Dr. Charles Musiska received the gift at the Zambia High Commission. Currently the tele-medicine is at pilot phase and once completed, the Ministry of Health will see the programme domesticated as well as expanded to other areas of Zambia.

LONDON Thursday, 25th March, 2016

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