E-health

Focus

Healthcare without borders

12.03.12 @ 08:29

  1. By Philip Ebels

BRUSSELS - The town hospital of Guriceel, in the Galguduud region in central Somalia, is understaffed.

  • Video-streaming is heling hospitals in Africa to overcome staffing problems (Photo: US Army Africa)

The doctors who once worked there have all but fled the fighting that has afflicted the country for decades. Those who remain often lack education. But they do have an internet connection.

Since January 2011, the hospital’s paediatrics department is able to consult with a specialist based in Nairobi, in neighbouring Kenya, via live video streaming. The specialist, himself a Somali national, helps establish the right diagnosis and even talks to the patients’ parents.

The project, a pilot initiative of Doctors Without Borders, is already paying off, Bienvenu Baruani, project coordinator in Nairobi, tells EUobserver. Not only do the children of Guriceel receive better healthcare, its doctors are learning, he says.

"At first, 90 percent of diagnoses were changed after specialist consultation. Now, it is about 60 percent."

A phone and a lifeline

If there is one part of the world where the coming of new technologies can make a difference in people's health, it is the poor regions.

Access to healthcare is often difficult: Distances may be great, treatments expensive, and doctors few.

Yet while Internet connectivity remains low (less than one third), mobile phones have all but infested the developing world.

According to the UN’s telecommunication agency, 79 percent of people in the developing world (including China) have a mobile phone subscription - compared to 87 percent globally.

Mobile broadband is still a rarity, but will no doubt become more prevalent as prices for both internet and mobile phone subscriptions continue to drop dramatically.

Phones, it is believed, will help the poor to talk to doctors, report on the spread of diseases, or be reminded to bring the kids in for vaccination. Broadband internet will help them to do much more, like it does for the doctors of Guriceel.

A new study by The Boston Consulting Group claims that mobile health technology can reduce maternal and perinatal mortality by 30 percent; improve tuberculosis treatment compliance by 30 to 70 percent; and double the number of rural patients per doctor.

The World Health Organisation believes there is "great potential" in e-health, "particularly for rural and underserved communities in developing countries."

The World Bank believes it "allows low-income countries to leapfrog [towards better healthcare]," Armin Fidler, the bank's lead health adviser, told EUobserver. "Because it is readily accessible, relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated."

The bank's borrowers seem to agree. "We are client-driven," says Fidler. "And clearly increasingly in middle and lower-income countries, [investment in e-health] is what clients demand."

Meanwhile, in Somalia...

One year after the start of the project, mortality rates have gone down at the paediatrics department in the town hospital of Guriceel. In May, the gynaecology department hopes to start a similar project.

For his part, Baruani, the project coordinator in Nairobi, is convinced of the potential of such projects for healthcare in other poor parts of Africa.

"It is the choice of the future," he says. "The technology itself is not that difficult. All you need is an internet connection. It really is quite simple."