LUSAKA, Zambia — At the remote Newerere Clinic located at 30 kilometers north of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, health officer Kennedy Mulenga struggles with diagnosing a male patient who is developing breasts. Unable to find a solution on his own, he logs into Virtual Doctors (a handy tool for Zambian rural health centers), takes notes on the case, creates a patient file, snaps a photo and uploads all of the information to the Internet cloud.
A United Kingdom (U.K.) based volunteer doctor then analyzes the information and offers his diagnostic advice: the HIV-positive patient was experiencing gynecomastia, a side effect of antiretroviral medicine that causes the swelling of breast tissue, but was in no danger.
With a population of 14 million who mostly live in Zambia’s countryside, but a total of only 1,600 doctors who mostly work in towns and cities, quality healthcare is more than difficult to obtain. Many families rely on under-staffed and under-equipped Zambian rural health centers.
They usually have health officers rather than qualified doctors, causing patients often to be mistreated. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in nine children will not reach the age of 5; and 13.5 percent of Zambia’s adult population is HIV positive.
Virtual Doctors provides rural health centers with the support they need to better treat patients. Huw Jones founded the charity in Bright, U.K. with the aim of improving health services in Zambia by providing direct and individual support for health workers through telemedicine. Health officers go through the exact process Mulenga went through in order to receive diagnostic and treatment-related assistance from U.K.-based volunteer doctors.
Jones was inspired to create Virtual Doctors after working in Zambia as a safari guide. One day while driving along a remote part of the country, he spotted a trail of blood in the road that he thought came from animals; but after driving further, he caught up to a couple on a bike; the man was pedaling while the woman — who was pregnant and bleeding heavily — sat on the handlebars.
Since they were still 60 miles away from the nearest hospital, Jones decided to pick them up, but the woman ended up dying in the back of his car. This serves as a single example of what frequently occurs in Zambia.
Virtual Doctors now supports 19 Zambian rural health centers, helping with health services for almost one million people.
According to Mulenga, “It is difficult on your own. There is always stuff you cannot diagnose and when you need a specialist. So if it is complicated you have to refer a patient to a hospital, but with Virtual Doctors the clinic has a doctor.” This medical-assitance platform saves patients time, money and their health.
The charity is backed by the Zambian government and supported by both the former Education Secretary Charles Clarke and Muyeba Chikonde, Zambia’s high commissioner in the U.K. Chikonde even stated that Virtual Doctors was in the spirit of “ubuntu” — a word used in southern Africa to indicate a philosophy of showing humanity towards others.
“We’ve proved the concept, now we could take this anywhere in Africa,” Jones said. Discussions are in progress about working in other sub-Saharan African countries, such as Tanzania and Uganda.
– Alice Gottesman