The World Health Organization refers to Telehealth as the use of ICT for sharing information to diagnose and treat Injuries, assist research, in addition to providing continuing medical Education. Daily monitor.
The terms are often used interchangeably with Telemedicine, to mean the use of digital health technologies to provide medical services in remote regions. But Telemedicine is specific to delivery of long distance patient care and medicine, using information and communication technologies among two geographically separated parties.
In Uganda E-Health began in the 1980’s, when an audio satellite between Uganda and Canada was set up to provide continuing Medical studies including Postgraduate support, as well as Electroencephalogram studies. (EEG). Read more.
Overtime, Telemedicine has grown to include a number of mobile Health innovations helping to stitch the gap between doctors and patients, while reducing the country’s doctor to patient ratio burden that stands at 1:25,000.NCBI.
Earlier innovations included the Winsenga app created by Makerere University students to monitor foetal heart rate using a smartphone. This was followed by Matibabu app n 2012 used to do malaria tests without the need for an incision. Additionally an Electronic Medical Record system (EMR) was created to ease access of retroviral treatment to People Living with HIV (PLHIV). The system was first used at the Reach out Mbuya Clinic. Its services that later extended throughout the country helped reduce skipping appointments while promoting clinic efficacy.
Today, the use of E- Health tools has drastically grown to include Online Media, Fixed Telephones, Television, text messaging devices, teleconferencing and sharing information via Email especially at Healthcare centers and the Ministry of Health.
In March 2020 when the Coronavirus was registered in the country, the norm of Patients queuing up at health facilities changed as health workers and patients were all at risk of contracting the deadly disease. Fortunately, Health Service providers such as the Medical Concierge Group (TMCG), Infectious Disease Institute (IDI) and Baylor Uganda were already providing telehealth services in a number of health sections like HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Maternal newborn & Child health, as well as Sexual and Reproductive health.
Expansional use of telehealth to provide, medical services through voice, chat, video platforms, Short Messaging service (SMS) reminders on facility appointments and mobile SMS health information, escalated as lockdowns on border districts ensured with stay at home orders.
Currently as the country undergoes a second wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic, a Forty two days lockdown was imposed to curb the fast spread of the virus.
Additionally, the Ministry of Health with support of telecommunication companies provided information through SMS to the public, fostering disease awareness and prevention measures in English as indicated by the NCBI.
Tele-consultation providers like Rocket Health, Twogere Health, GOGP+ and Seven Doctors provide Tele-psychiatric services including tele-counselling in response to rising rates of depression and anxiety induced by the lockdown
A Tele-laboratory and Tele-pharmacy services innovated in the 2020 have been used to provide laboratory and medicine and deliveries to patient’s locations during the lockdown and Health facilities like Nakasero hospital, Case hospital (U), Uganda Medical Center and Victoria Hospitals provide Tele-consultations through phone applications like Google apps and SMS, voice calling between Health Care providers and beneficiaries
As stated in the Nile Post, Health Institutions such as International Hospital Kampala (IHK) and the International Medical Center partnered with MTN a Telecommunications company, to provide digitalized medical access throughout the country. The services include collection of samples from patient’s homes and results delivered through email, video or audio calls and drugs delivery.
This has enabled patients in remote regions to acquire medical attention without having to physically move to hospitals thus reducing their risk of contracting coronavirus, while promoting equal access of medical health to vulnerable groups such as People Living with HIV (PLHIV), pregnant women and Children.
However, according to the NCBI, a number of challenges have been registered in limiting telehealth and telemedicine services. These scale from limited service coverage concentrated in the Kampala Region, poor telecommunications infrastructure such as low speed internet including internet taxes, persistent power blackouts and illiteracy especially in rural areas.
The lack of skills and expertise to use Telehealth services by medical care providers and absence of a government policy to promote telemedicine in the country has limited development of the sector, which could have provided unlimited access to medical care especially during the lockdown.
According to the Daily Monitor, The World Health Organization stated that lack of funding to develop and support telehealth programs, limited infrastructure in terms of equipment and connectivity, diverging health system priorities and a lack of legislation or regulations covering telehealth programs has hindered the sector growth in Uganda.
Furthermore, limited confidence in the sector has made institutions such as the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioners’ Council, to refute the public about telemedicine use emphasizing that its operations in the country are illegal as stated in the Daily Monitor.
Moving forward, the country has promising potential given the fast growing rate of innovations around telehealth. If the country is to benefit, it must formulate laws and regulations on telemedicine recognition as a mode of service delivery. The Ministry of Health, Education and that of ICTs are tasked to collaboratively provide E- health Education to medical practitioners, with sufficient knowledge on the use of digital health Equipment, and avail funds to increase service delivery especially as the Health sector grapples to provide services amidst the Pandemic’s second wave in the country.
My name is Aidah Nabunjo, a Ugandan Journalist and writer. Passionate about bringing African stories to life. Areas of interest are Agriculture, Energy , Policy and Governance. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org