Virtual Doctors could be the Answer for Karamoja’s health centers

Nurse at Karamoja (Image Credit: UNFAP)

Karamoja is one of the remote areas in Uganda, my last visit there in 2009 made me feel like it was a completely separate place with different laws and all. I however noticed the poor health and sanitation in most of the towns there from Moroto, Kotido, Koputh and Kaabong and the place was badly in need of more medical services. It seems there are challenges in convincing graduate medical doctors and nurses to relocate to this region from the capital Kampala.

According to report from VoA, a new telemedicine facility could be the answer to Karamoja’s issues as it allows local health care workers to consult online with doctors in Kampala. The potential for Uganda’s poorly-staffed health centers could be huge.

Patients flock in the dozens at Nadunget Health Center in Karamoja, waiting patiently for their turn to see a nurse. The small team of of nurses and midwives lead by Rosemary Napeyok, who heads of the facility, and has to serve about 25,000 people in the area. Rosemary says

Most illnesses, are fairly straightforward. The major conditions we treat here are malaria, respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal infections. We also get a few cases of viral infections, like right now there is an outbreak of hepatitis,”

Referral hospitals are 10 Km away

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The medical staff sometimes runs into challenging cases and, like all health centers in Karamoja, Nadunget has no doctor. Advanced stages of AIDS, severe malaria and more obscure diseases often baffle the nurses. All they can do is follow standard procedure to send such patients to the referral hospital in the town of Moroto, 10 kilometers away.

If you have been to Karamoja before you know that the roads are terrible, plus Rosemary says transport is often lacking and even the referral hospital has only two doctors if any.

“Even sometimes phone calls become a challenge. The whole weekend there was no network. So if you have no transport here there is no way you can reach the next person who can help you to have the patient referred to the referral hospital,”

Technology can save the day

But thanks to a brand-new satellite Internet connection, consulting a doctor has just become much easier. Not that there has not been any other satellite connection in this region, but most are dedicated to military or for telecom companies to provide transmission links back to Kampala.

A simple call over Skype to experts in Kampala, is often enough to clear up any doubts that the nurses’ could have. The telemdeicine center was set up by UNICEF and Godfrey Bampiiga and employe explains that the computers the health center uses run on solar power, important in a region almost completely off the electric grid.

“These are small but robust computers, very nice, cost effective. You just have to turn it to face where the patient is, you adjust, and the doctor is able to see exactly how the patient is doing,” he said.