The Virtual Doctors: Telemedicine in Rural Zambia
In this blog I want to tell you about a charity that I have been volunteering with for the past 6 months or so (edit: as of January 2020 I have been the medical director for the charity)
Based in the UK, the Virtual Doctors charity aims to deliver remote medical advice to clinical officers in rural Zambia, when they have a complex patient or a clinical dilemma.
I recently made a video for the charity explaining how the process works:
One of the charity’s main aims is to reduce the need for patients having to travel over long distances, at great expense, to reach the nearest hospital if they have a condition that can be managed with remote advice at the local health centre.
The charity has a wide range of volunteer doctors, spanning primary and secondary care, including GP’s, surgeons, gynaecologists and cardiologists to name just a few.
I tend to get several cases a month. These can include a range of presentations, for example recently I have advised regarding:
· An unwell adult with malaria
· A swallowed foreign body in a child
· An unwell adult with chest pain
· A patient with an abdominal abscess requiring incision and drainage
I have found working with the Virtual Doctors very rewarding as it allows me to do something sustainable alongside my work in the UK.
Each case usually takes around 20-30 minutes at most, and can be answered wherever there is an Internet connection! Volunteering also gives me the chance to learn about managing conditions that I would not usually see in the UK, which is really interesting.
The other week I was, somewhat surprisingly, advising a clinical officer to consider a diagnosis of malaria in an unwell adult, whilst the week before I was reading up on the European Gastroenterology guidelines for the management of swallowed foreign bodies in children.
It can be challenging when managing certain cases, as the clinical officers do not have access to the same sort of investigations that we are used to in the UK.
It is often tricky trying to balance the usefulness of an investigation against the impact that travelling to hospital may have on a patient, their family and their livelihood.
Coming from a background of working in primary care, and managing uncertainty can be valuable , but often patients may have abnormal physiological signs, and in the UK we often default to referrals and investigations that are simply not available in rural Zambia.
Many clinics have access to very basic tests such as urine dipsticks and rapid diagnostic malaria finger-prick testing kits, and some clinics can also check a patient’s haemoglobin to exclude anaemia.
Referral to hospital is usually necessary if you want a full blood count, kidney function or liver function, and this may be more than a day’s travel away. Imaging, and other more in depth tests, may be even further.
I would encourage any of my medical friends reading this blog to consider getting involved, particularly if you have an interest in international health and healthcare equality, and want to contribute to the ongoing education and development of healthcare in Zambia, alongside your work in the NHS!
There are also always fundraising opportunities available: if you are running a marathon, having a cake sale, planning on going sky-diving, or doing anything else exciting, and you want to raise money for the charity, then please let the fundraising team know!
To find out more please visit www.virtualdoctors.org
Alternatively drop me an email: email@example.com
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Until next time, take care