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Floating clinics, rolling medics: In Africa, the hospital goes to you

The Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic is a plan to deliver medical services by water to reach populations that would otherwise be restricted by their landscape. Photo courtesy LTFHC.
The Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic is a plan to deliver medical services by water to reach populations that would otherwise be restricted by their landscape. Photo courtesy LTFHC.

For those who live in some of the most challenging landscapes in rural Africa, two innovative models are expanding the distribution of health care to ensure consistent aid—a boat and a truck.

The Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic is a proposal for a ship that would travel for 1-2 weeks at a time through the longest lake in the world to isolated communities. A team of Western, Congolese, and Tanzanian medical professionals would offer checkups and surgeries, including emergency response and trauma care, specialty care, and medical transport. The lake borders Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Zambia, and the clinic would engage with each. Dr. Amy Lehman, founder of the clinic, directs the organization, which would provide training and assistance to both Congolese and Tanzanians within the same space.

This regional hospital, Lehman's website says, could reach remote populations and provides resources to one of the most inaccessible regions on earth. Many infectious diseases, which have been eradicated in other places, still linger around Lake Tanganyika, home to 12 million people. The most common diseases are malaria, cholera and measles. The clinic also helps distribute medicine and medical equipment to areas that border the lake, which have weak overland supply chains.

The ship would offer "two onboard operating rooms, intensive care facilities and a small inpatient ward, ship-to-shore loading equipment for the establishment of temporary land-based patient registration and treatment areas where the majority of services would be performed, and an outboard motor boat to serve as a water-based ambulance," says the organization’s website.

In Namibia, the Mister Sister Mobile Health Service has a similar solution for providing care to remote communities. It’s a hospital on wheels.

The mobile clinic covers the Otjozondjupa, Omaheke and Khomas regions with two nurses and a driver who is also trained to provide administrative support. The organization takes services one step further by offering health insurance for services in these communities. Those who benefit from the clinic include rural employees and their dependents, whose employers contribute to the healthcare program through annual subscription and premium contributions. The clinic is also available to other community members on a fee-for-service basis. Poor communities, pensioners, and orphans receive services through contributions of medication from the Ministry of Health, donors and other corporate sponsors.

The PharmAccess Foundation and Namibia's Ministry of Health are two investors in this inventive delivery service. PharmAccess is a Dutch non-profit dedicated to strengthening basic health systems in sub-Saharan Africa by using public-private partnerships to alleviate the healthcare burden of African governments. For example, PharmAccess works with the Namibia Global Fund Programme through the Namibia Business Coalition on AIDS (NABCOA) to conduct wellness screenings for blood pressure, BMI, rapid blood testing for glucose, cholesterol, HIV, haemoglobin, Hepatitis B and syphilis.

Both the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic and the Mister Sister Mobile Health Service struggle to serve those who need assistance for severe diseases and illnesses. Patients who cannot be treated by these traveling hospitals are referred to the nearest public health facility, though that may be a great distance away. Though the organizations work to "bridge the logistical gap" between medicine, vaccines, technologies, diagnostics, and patients, they provide only a piece of the ongoing conversation needed to guarantee a network of health benefits and treatment for all.

Correction: An earlier version of this post suggested that the floating health clinic already exists. It's actually an as yet unfunded proposal, with many millions of dollars left to raise.

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