The Virtual Doctors: Connecting Rural Communities through Telemedicine
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FRRHH were delighted to connect with The Virtual Doctors and hear about their work to improve the quality of healthcare in remote and rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
In their latest blog, they share how they are working to make healthcare more accessible and transforming the lives of many vulnerable people living in rural Africa through the use of their smartphone app.
The Virtual Doctors is a UK-based NGO, that uses a bespoke telemedicine app, to connect isolated rural health-centres (RHCs) in Zambia, with volunteer doctors, based in the UK and Zambia. The UK has one doctor for every 360 people whereas Zambia has one doctor per 12,000 people. Clinical officers (COs) working at RHCs provide the first port of call for the majority of the population, and may see 60-100 patients a day, treating both adults and children, as well as managing dental problems, obstetrics and trauma! We have been partnered with the Zambian Ministry of Health for over 10 years, and now have over 190 volunteer doctors, offering diagnostic and treatment advice across a range of specialities. Despite the pandemic, we have had a 73% increase in volunteers over the past year. This really highlights the growing awareness that healthcare moving forwards, needs to have a global and collaborative approach.
Our service is text-based, with the option to send images, rather than using real-time video-calls to give advice. We are often asked why this is the case. The answer lies within the context of how our service was developed. Intermittent data bandwidth makes video calls impractical in much of rural Zambia. It also means that UK volunteers can answer queries at a time that suits them, and work around their NHS commitments. Excitingly, this technology, developed for rural Zambia, will soon be piloted with the NHS, in the south-east of England, to help GPs provide effective and efficient care for residential and nursing homes.
Since 2016 the number of RHCs we have supported has increased from 6 to 233, and the corresponding number of COs we advise has increased by 2,233%! We now answer an average of 220 monthly cases, a total of 5,512 since our new IT system was introduced in late 2016. 90% of the time the advice given has improved patients’ symptoms. It has prevented referral to hospital in 76% of cases and 94% of the time the advice given was judged educationally beneficial by the COs.
The service is also helping to reduce professional isolation and to improve the resilience of healthcare workers who are often posted to isolated rural clinics away from friends and family. The eventual aim is that our service will be country-wide, and fully integrated into the Zambian healthcare system. This will allow us to hand it over to the Zambian Ministry of Health, who can continue the service independently, whilst allowing us to focus on improving access to healthcare in other countries that face similar challenges.
The Impact of COVID-19
With the global spread of COVID-19 our work is now more relevant than ever before. Reducing unnecessary hospital referrals and movement within Zambia, is key to reducing the spread of the disease. In April 2020, we launched the Virtual Doctors’ COVID-19 Response Fund, to support the Ministry of Health in preventing the spread of the virus, whilst continuing to provide telemedical support to 140 remote health centres across Zambia. As part of this, we have provided all the health centres that we support with foot-operated hand washing basins soaps, sanitisers, cleaning and disinfecting products. Moving forwards we shall be providing this to any new clinics that we set up along with the usual device, app and support from our in-country team.
We rely 100% on charitable donations to fund our work and receive no government grants or funding. We are grateful for any donations or fundraising efforts that can help us continue to support rural communities throughout Zambia.
We are also keen to hear from any doctors that may want to volunteer with us! To get involved, you only need three things: an active GMC registration, CCT and an internet connection.
If you do not yet have your CCT, we may be able to accept you on a case-by-case basis: for example, if you have DTM&H or are a senior registrar, approaching CCT. For more information or to get involved please contact Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org
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