Telemedicine Lifeline for Rural Africa: The Growth of Information Communication Technologies Has Allowed a Number of Projects Sponsored by the Vodafone Group Foundation to Provide Healthcare Only Previously Available in Populous Urban Areas. Stuart Price Reports

By Price, Stuart | African Business, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Telemedicine Lifeline for Rural Africa: The Growth of Information Communication Technologies Has Allowed a Number of Projects Sponsored by the Vodafone Group Foundation to Provide Healthcare Only Previously Available in Populous Urban Areas. Stuart Price Reports


Price, Stuart, African Business


First, there was the seismic shift in the provision of mobile telecommunications in Africa. The rapid rise of affordable and easy access mobile phone technology has been nothing short of meteoric, with the continent being the fastest growing mobile market in the world--increasing by 1,000% over the past five years.

As with many such advances, it is often the case that the initial concept opens doorways to other opportunities that can capitalise on technology and make further advances in other unrelated areas. The information communication technologies (ICT) companies that now have comprehensive coverage throughout many regions of Africa can provide the structural framework for such developments and one of the biggest, the Vodafone Group Foundation (VGF), has funded a number of projects. They are now using mobile technology to help deliver healthcare to remote areas that hitherto had very little access.

Nigel Thorpe, the acting head of the Vodafone Group Foundation says mobile technology has a number of qualities that help to overcome key barriers to providing health information and advice. "ICTs have empowered us to surmount both health and travel infrastructure problems, while enabling communication with hard-to-reach and rural communities."

As part of the foundation's objective to share the benefits of developments in the ICT sector, it has funded a number of 'telemedicine' projects in Africa. One such initiative has been established in conjunction with the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) to ameliorate healthcare in Kenya and Tanzania.

A [pounds sterling]167,284 ($294,000) grant from VGF has enabled AMREF to expand its existing surgical outreach services, improving healthcare facilities for thousands of people living in poor, rural communities in East Africa.

Dr Alexander Heroys, director of AMREF UK, says the thinking behind the telemedicine project is to increase the efficiency of their existing outreach programme through the piloting of new communication systems in four sites across East Africa with a combined population of 1,251,141 in the catchment areas of Kakuma and Mandera in Kenya and Kibondo and Rubya in Tanzania. "People living in rural areas, covered by the programme, receive a standard of healthcare that was once only possible in the bigger towns and cities," Heroys says. "In remote areas, people who could have once died of complicated injuries or illnesses can now be diagnosed and treated quickly. Rural doctors now consult with experts in Nairobi using digital cameras, scanners, the internet and mobile phones." With these hi-tech facilities, the staff can order supplies quicker, ask for advice on complex cases by tele-consultation, email a digital photo or x-ray to another doctor for opinion and advice, receive test results quickly from Nairobi and acquire the latest training materials and scientific papers.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The 'miracle' of telemedicine

Since 2000, approximately 10,000 people each year have directly benefited from telemedicine projects with an average of 5,000 operations performed annually. Heroys admits that many of these would not have been possible without telemedicine.

In addition to treatment and diagnosis, over 4,000 healthcare staff at rural hospitals get direct workplace training through the outreach programme and some 300 health professionals in the project areas have been able to improve their medical and technical knowledge.

It is a gloomy reality that there are not enough doctors and healthcare workers in Africa, with many seeking employment in the more affluent areas of the world. But telemedicine is, in its own way, countering this.

"Rural doctors in hospitals covered by the project have a greater job satisfaction, because of increased training and better equipment." This, Heroys says, enhances their performance and encourages them to stay on in their posts and even attracts doctors to the rural hospitals. …

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