Why is it exciting to hear of virtual doctors in Zambia?

I just read about a new service – a virtual doctor service for patients in remote areas of Zambia. Given that Zambia has one of the worst doctor:patient ratios in the world, this is potentially game-changing. This tele-medicine service will connect patients with health professionals around the world for advice on diagnostics and treatment. Tele-medicine has been used in many settings, so why is this particular service interesting?

For one, it speaks to the fact that internet in Zambia is becoming more robust. As someone who is keenly interested in addressing the health workforce gaps in Africa, this is exciting. When the internet reliably reaches remote areas of Zambia, not only will health service be taken to another level, but also health professions education.  Earlier this year, while on a site visit to the medical schools in Zambia, I learnt that the Ministry of Health has plans to exponentially grow the number of physicians trained in the country (something like 10k in 10 years, when until recently the output was around 100/year!) The only way they can conceivably do this, is by using eLearning so that students placed at district or provincial hospitals, have access to the limited number of faculty working at one of the few medical schools in Zambia. So when I read that tele-medicine has arrived in rural Zambia, I felt a twinge of optimism that the next break-through may be a medical school in a remote district of the country, using teachers in Lusaka or even New York!

The other interesting feature of this program is that they are recruiting health professionals from around the world to participate. Last week I ran a course for internal medicine residents interested in global health. All of the residents described a deep desire to maintain some level of global health activity in their career, but none of them were quite sure how to do it.  The opportunity to provide medical consultation to patients in the remote areas of Zambia would certainly be a great way for them to either get involved, or more likely, to stay involved after a medical mission. During our course, we discussed the unclear ethics behind short-term medical missions. One clear take-away from our discussion was the need for short-term missions to be anchored in longer-term relationships with communities. Without knowing the details, this virtual doctor program appears to be a plausible strategy to work remotely and become familiar with a community.

It’s obvious that technology is going to be a game-changer in health care. It’s exciting that even the most remote parts of the poorest countries are starting to feel the benefits of exciting innovations.


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