Giving rural dwellers opportunity to access health care

THE PUNCH Newspaper-Niyi Odebode

Telemedicine has the potential of improving Nigeria’s health indices, if infrastructural challenges are addressed.

Nigeria has about 45,000 medical doctors to a population of 150 million, according to the Nigerian Medical Association. Besides doctors, the country is also facing dearth of other health workers. The few that are available are unevenly distributed with most of them concentrated in the urban areas. Consequently, rural communities, where many Nigerians reside, find it difficult to access qualitative health care.

But stakeholders, including the NMA and the Federal Ministry of Health believe that rural dwellers can access qualitative health care through the introduction of telemedicine.

At a workshop organised by the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Space Research and Development Agency at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, the Deputy Chairman, Medical Advisory Council of UCH, Prof. Temitope Alonge, described telemedicine as the future of health care.

Alonge said, “Telemedicine or e-medicine is the deployment of telecommunication in the health care delivery. It encompasses the use of basic telecommunication gadgets at the primary, secondary and tertiary care levels.”

He explained that telemedicine involved linking of hospitals in rural areas with tertiary centres such as the UCH. According to him, services of experts in tertiary hospitals can be available for patients in remote areas.

Explaining the project in the UCH, he said that specialists in the hospitals took a telemedicine van to various local governments. He said, “The experts went to primary health centres, where they evaluated patients.

“Where they were in doubts, they recorded the patient on a camera and transmitted him or her to the base station in the hospital. An expert at the base station, who is a specialist in the condition, examined the patient, made diagnosis and offered treatment without going to the rural area.”

The medical doctor said that telemedicine was not only cheap; he stated that it could make qualitative health care accessible to Nigerians, wherever they might be.

The country embraced telemedicine in 2007, when NASRDA and the Federal Ministry of Health inaugurated its pilot project in two teaching hospitals and six federal medical centres in six zones of the country.

The teaching hospitals are UCH and the University Teaching Hospital, Maiduguri. The federal medical centres include those in Owo, Gombe, Makurdi, Yenagoa, Birnin Kebbi and Owerri.

Apart from the public institutions, private organisations such as the Lagoon Hospital, Lagos and the Igbinedion University Teaching Hospital have also embraced the use of the technology.

The Director- General of NASRDA, Dr. Seidu Mohammed, in an interview with our correspondent at the workshop, noted that benefits of medical science were often available to a privileged few in urban areas.

According to him, telemedicine brigdes the gap between health care specialists and rural communities. “Telemedicine helps doctors in distant and remote areas to avail themselves of timely consultations with specialists without going through long hours of travel across distances.”

The director-general said that telemedicine could produce a data base for Africa countries in diseases such as malaria, cancer, and other epidemic diseases in the continent.

According to him, “the telemedicine pilot scheme has set a baseline and framework for deployment of telemedicine services in Nigeria.”

Mohammed disclosed that during the pilot scheme, health services such as dermatology, ophthalmology, cardiology and pathology were offered in rural communities using telemedicine vans.

The Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Alhassan Zaku, at the workshop, said that at the 14th African Union summit, the country received an award for using ICT to improve health care.

A co-founder of Eko Hospital, Lagos, Dr. Sunny Kuku, who was the chairman of the occasion, said Nigerians would benefit immensely from telemedicine. “The human capital for health delivery in Nigeria is in short supply and it is concentrated in areas that do not serve a fraction of the people,” he said.

Kuku said that with e-health, rural communities could access health care. Kuku added that through telemedicine, Nigerian doctors and other health experts abroad could offer services to Nigerians without leaving overseas.

Also, Health Promotion Officer of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Olalokun Soyinka, said with mobile telephony, hospitals in urban areas could offer tele-medical services.

“We could take advantage of incredibly wide mobile telephone network to offer qualitative health care,” he said. Soyinka cited the example of Ondo State, where free mobile telephones were distributed to 300 pregnant women who were all attached to qualified midwives. He stated that the women delivered without any maternal and infant mortality.

Soyinka agreed that telemedicine could face infrastructural problems in the country. He, however, said, “We need to be determined to find imaginative solutions to them.”

According to him, primary health centres in rural areas can resort to the use of solar energy and chargers.

Alonge said that information and communication technology could be used in medical education. Citing the e-learning centre of the UCH, he said, “Students are connected to lecturers in other countries’ real life. Our students listen to the lecture as the lecturer is delivering the lecture over there. It is not recorded. They ask questions after the lecture.”

The National Secretary of the Nigerian Medical Association, Dr. Kenneth Okoro, lauded the telemedicine project. He said, “It is useful for medical education, research and health delivery.”

Okoro, however, stated that for the country to derive maximum benefits from telemedicine, infrastructural problems must be solved. He said, “In telemedicine, there is a particular centre from where signals are transmitted. There is energy crisis in the country. If we can fix infrastructural problems, telemedicine can improve our health indices.”


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