|Technology allows Ethiopian doctors to confer with doctors from around the globe. Photo Credit: Flickr|
"I discussed the case with staff in the pathology department," Professor Schneider recalls. "We could not come to a definite decision." In the end, Schneider referred the case to an old colleague in Switzerland. Using the latest technology, he took a digital photograph of the boy's knee tissue through a microscope and e-mailed the photo to Professor Gernot Jundt, head of the bone tumor registry at the University of Basel. "Within days we received his diagnosis and detailed recommendations for the treatment," Schneider remembers." We were able to save the boy's leg."
A US$2.13 million grant from India will fund an ambitious telemedicine venture in Ethiopia for the next three years.
Now things have moved further: a US$2.13 million grant from India will fund a more ambitious telemedicine venture for the next three years. Doctors in at least two Ethiopian hospitals, including Addis Ababa's Black Lion Teaching Hospital, will consult their counterparts in India using digital technology. It is the start of a venture in which India plans to establish ten ‘super specialty' hospitals in Africa under its Aid-to-Africa Budget program. India hopes it might capitalize on its investment in the future by charging fees for advice given by Indian doctors.
The medical facilities at the Black Lion Teaching Hospital are a world away from the health services available to most Ethiopians. Most of Ethiopia's 74 million people live in rural areas. Many villages still have no access to basic health care, and patients often travel over 50 kilometers on foot to get to a health post. Those who are too ill to walk or to be transported (if transport is available) frequently die.
Under-investment in rural health care facilities, a shortage of doctors and the lack of incentives to retain medical staff in rural areas all serve to increase the problem. Patients are referred to the Black Lion Teaching Hospital from all over the country. If they do not die on the way to Addis Ababa, they often face long waiting times once they get there.
Under-investment in rural health care facilities, a shortage of doctors and the lack of incentives to retain medical staff in rural areas all serve to increase the problem.
Together with his son Laike, he raised nearly 4,000 birr (US$500) to travel to the capital. Father and son embarked on an exhausting journey. "Whatever we could sell, we have sold to get here and to pay for treatment, including our only oxen," said Laike. They left their families and their land behind, unsure whether anyone would take good care of them.
Telemedicine, if it were to be rolled out to rural areas, could make Demissie Sahle's expensive journey a thing of the past. The Ethiopian government has already declared its commitment to information technology - it plans to connect the entire country to broadband access points over the next two to three years and Ethiopia's prime minister Meles Zenawi has described IT as a crucial weapon to fight poverty.
But the country's five-year health sector development plan does not include policies for how digital technology could be used to improve rural health services. The government's main objective in rolling out the IT infrastructure is to get local councils and schools connected to the internet - ‘telemedicine' is not a priority.
"Ethiopia has signed a US$2.13 million agreement with India for the coming three years for these specific projects, but I am afraid it will take some time to prepare the entire health sector for the latest ICT developments," said Gadissa Lemecha, team leader of the Ministry of Health's Information Processing and Documentation department.
Gadissa says the absence of a policy to use IT within the health sector does not rule out expanding telemedicine into rural areas but it will be dependent on a number of factors - the successful upgrading of the currently weak telecommunications infrastructure, the results of the Indian project, and funding. It is not clear at this stage how ‘telemedicine' might become available to the poor.
It is not clear at this stage how ‘telemedicine' might become available to the poor.
In the meantime, patients like Demissie Sahle, the farmer from Amhara, have no choice but to undertake long journeys in search of treatment. Three months have passed since he arrived in Addis Ababa. Cases of sick people have been reported who had to wait for a year or more to get a bed in the teaching hospital. Like Demissie and his son Laike they often sold everything they owned. If the money runs out, they are forced to beg. "I can't bear to see my father die in front of my eyes," says Laike, "I will spend whatever I have to save him."
Contributed by Sisay Abebe, a print Journalist and Executive Director of the Ethiopian Volunteer Media Professionals Against AIDS. Reprinted with permission from PANOS Features.
To read another Global Envision article about information technology and development, see Information and Communication Technologies for Development.
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