Medical consultations in Nigeria are done in hospitals or other medical facilities. As a result, many people especially those in rural areas often die due to delay in reaching health facilities. Experts explain how telemedicine can reduce such untimely deaths, Bukola Adebayo writes .
A doctor is expected to have touched and seen his patient face-to-face before he/she is believed to have given effective treatment in Nigeria. Ninety nine per cent of medical consultations in Nigeria are done now in persons as patients have little or no faith in any other means it could have been done.
Many patients have lost their lives while queuing for days, weeks and often times months, to see doctors, in public and private hospitals across the country.
Who should be held accountable for these deaths? The consultant who has been overworked or the hospital whose facilities and personnel are overstretched by the population of patients?
It cannot be denied that the burden placed on the shoulders of health managers in the face of inadequate facilities is heavy.
Stakeholders who spoke at different forums with our correspondent have called on the government to embrace telemedicine, a form of mobile health in which medical services can be taken to patients in their location, using simple technology like mobile phones, SMS and internet to increase access to health care.
They said if more lives were to be saved in the rural areas, where access to health facilities, health workers or a specialist are a luxury, telemedicine and mobile health should be incorporated into the health care system of the country.
“The medical world in Nigeria would be a global village, if mobile health care is fully deployed,’ the Joint Chief Medical Director, Eko Hospitals, Lagos, Dr. Sonny Kuku, said.
Kuku said the time is now for Nigeria to incorporate telemedicine in its health sector as a tool for reducing preventable deaths through the provision of speedy and quality medical services for patients no matter where they reside in the country.
On why the nation needs this technology, Kuku said Nigeria does not have enough doctors and specialists to offer advanced life- saving diagnostic services to patients and to improve the standard of clinical diagnosis at every level.
He said, “We do not have enough doctors nor do we have enough specialists particularly in the area of diagnosis. Imagine how many patients would benefit from the fact that you can send your X-ray results to an expert and he can get the diagnosis to you anywhere in the country without having to travel.
“That way, you do not have to have a radiologist in every hospital or a laboratory scientist in every clinic. It is possible to direct a doctor who is not a specialist in the rural area through telemedicine to do some surgery so that the patient does not die during transfer to tertiary facilities when complications arise.”
Kuku, a former Chairman of the Board, University College Hospital, Ibadan, Oyo State, said if such technology were adopted, teaching hospitals could connect with secondary and primary health care facilities, especially in cases of emergencies.
“Teaching hospitals can connect with their various branches and eventually reach the grass roots. It is useful in our country where we do not have the infrastructure or the facilities. A consultant can talk to a resident or doctors to manage some crisis situation,” he added.
Also highlighting the need for telemedicine, the Chief Medical Director, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Prof. Akin Oshibogun, said it could be used to facilitate training for doctors and also for high tech consultations, especially in diagnosis.
Oshibogun said, “Specialists from other teaching hospitals can exchange ideas with other doctors in other hospitals. Students can receive seminars and trainings through telemedicine.
“A patient had a surgery in India, instead of going back to see the consultant in India, we can use telemedicine to link them up with the consultant in Nigeria. It saves money and logistics.
“Another case is if we want a second opinion with any consultant, we can send X-rays and test results to them for interpretation. And he would also see the patient because the camera is capturing the patient and transmitting pictures to the expert and he advises us on what to do,”
According to him, the technology is already being deployed in the hospital, but there was need to expand coverage and infrastructure to remote areas.
Oshibogun said, “We must increase access, so that we can link up with the patient and doctor in Ilorin or Osun for instance from LUTH. If in a general hospital in Okitipupa, a young doctor is faced with a complication, with a telemedicine facility that is connected to LUTH, we can give advice and he can also send results while we see the patient over the screen, so the consultants here can see the patient and give their own advice and save the patient’s life.”
The President, Association of General and Private Medical Practitioners of Nigeria, Dr. Anthony Omolola, noted that telemedicine, if fully implemented, would help transfer of skills and knowledge sharing between doctors in private practice and their counterparts in public health institutions.
Omolola said it would also reduce the population of Nigerians travelling abroad for treatment and diagnosis.
He said, “Telemedicine is one of the easiest methods in quick diagnosis and care. A doctor in surgery can relate his procedure to any expert in the world and he/she would be told what to do because they are both seeing the patient.
“It is a form of medical tourism which allows free flow of information and transfer of knowledge. Other African countries can also learn from us. Patients do not have to travel abroad for a diagnosis or procedures that can be coordinated here in Nigeria through tele-consultations.”
A study conducted for PwC Global Health care by the Economist Intelligence Unit titled, “Emerging mhealth:Path to growth,” states that there were just about 70, 000 registered medical practitioners available to about 160 million Nigerians, hence the need for mobile health care to increase access for patients.