Following a successful pilot project in the Ashanti region, Ghana is getting ready to roll out telemedicine — remote diagnosis and treatment of patients using telecommunications technology — to expand healthcare delivery, especially to women and children.

The announcement was made by Ebenezer Appiah-Denkyira, director-general of the Ghana Health Services (GHS) during a forum in Ghana on digital health at scale in low- and middle-income countries.

The forum was convened by the GHS and Novartis Foundation, who have been involved in the pilot projects.

Following the successful trial, the next step is to connect all the major regional hospitals, and to give community health workers access to their facilities through telemedicine.

“Telemedicine is something that we actually need. It has been piloted, but we now want to scale it up to a programme covering the entire country,” Appiah-Denkyira, said, adding that in remote locations where pilot projects have been done, up to 25 per cent of pregnant women have not been to referral hospitals.

“We have done well in using telemedicine in educating health workers, diagnosis and offering care and tackling of communicable diseases,” he says. ”But we also expect to use it in management of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

According to Ann Aerts, head of Novartis Foundation, four out of every five deaths from NCDs occur in low-income countries because their health systems are insufficiently prepared.

Telemedicine, she says, could help African countries leverage healthcare delivery, and the Ghanaian successful pilot projects could be replicated in other parts of the continent.

“There is a need to change the way healthcare is being provided currently for universal coverage. Telemedicine is one of those innovative ways that can improve the knowledge of most health workers for quality and timely healthcare delivery [in Sub-Saharan Africa],” Aerts adds.

But for this to work, she adds, there has to be political will from the government and the Ghanaian trials have demonstrated that with government involvement, telemedicine surely works.

Alexis Nang-Beifubah, Ashanti region regional director of health services, says that access to healthcare is still a major challenge because of lack of equitable distribution of healthcare facilities.

“Taking this information over great distances from the physicians using technology reduces the need to be there physically to avail health knowledge and skills, and is crucial in achieving greater health coverage,” he says. He explains that in Ashanti region, there are tele-consultation centres (TCCs) managed by qualified nurses who interact with community health workers in remote locations through mobile phones. The nurses advise the community health workers on how to deal with the diseases reported or act as bridges between them and doctors in complicated cases.

“When the nurses have complicated cases they will call the doctors for advice or recommend referrals to hospitals. Because of this, the number of referrals have gone down drastically in the region,” he says.

Novartis Foundation, he notes, has been instrumental in supporting them to set up the TCCs and this has translated into improving knowledge, skills and competence of community health workers.

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