By Adam Lane, Huawei Kenya
Technology plays a vital role in bringing healthcare to people who live in remote parts of the world.
In Kenya, for example, most healthcare facilities are dispensaries: small clinics, usually staffed by nurses and a pharmacist, offering basic medical advice and medicine.
Kenya’s medical expertise is concentrated in a handful of big hospitals in major cities. There aren’t many – just six national-level referral hospitals for a country of almost 54m people – and most Kenyans can’t get to them because of the cost and travel time required.
As a result, many people who need medical care don’t go to a hospital until they’re quite ill. Some who do make the trip find, when they arrive, that the specialist they need to see is unavailable that day. Even if the journey is successful, patients who have traveled five hours each way are unlikely to go back for follow-up care.
Rural, poor and isolated
In 2018, the Kenyan government began rolling out a universal healthcare initiative aimed at helping vulnerable populations in remote parts of the country, especially pregnant women. Telemedicine was a key part of the initiative, as was digitizing the country’s medical facilities and supply chain.
Kenya has 47 counties, one of the least populated being Isiolo. Rural, poor, and situated on arid plains, Isiolo has a population density of just 11 people per square kilometer. It is far from any major city. Even the county capital, the town of Isiolo, is a five-hour drive from Nairobi.
Just 12 doctors serve a population of 268,000 people, with the majority of the health facilities staffed only by nurses or clinical officers. If you have health problems, especially in an emergency, Isiolo County is not a good place to be.
Huawei wanted to demonstrate how to expand e-health in Kenya by maximizing existing government infrastructure. The company had worked with Kenya to build a high-speed fiber optic network and national data center. Along with partners from local and national government, Huawei supported a pilot project to leverage the fiber network and data center to enable video health consultations that gave people in remote areas access to specialist doctors in urban areas – and to protect patients’ privacy by using a secure platform hosted in the government’s own data center. Huawei extended the fiber connectivity to a rural facility in Isiolo, enabling it to link up with Isiolo Town’s hospital, and that in turn to the main national referral hospital in Nairobi.
Enter the IdeaHub
Then Huawei provided all three facilities with an IdeaHub.
An IdeaHub is a smart touch screen with built-in videoconferencing software. In a healthcare setting, it helps doctors talk to and see patients remotely, as well as accessing and collaborating on medical documents or images.
High-definition video quality, with a zoom and multiple microphones, makes a fairly thorough examination possible. Even though doctors cannot touch the patients, a local nurse or other health professional can sit next to them. Although there are limits to what this type of consultation can accomplish, in many cases it is far better for the patient than receiving no care at all. At the very least, it can provide useful guidance on what other lab tests or physical consultations may be necessary,
as well as clarifying their urgency. It can also aid in preparing the specialist for the subsequent physical visit, which can then be more efficient and better planned, saving time for the patient and the specialist alike.
This approach also benefits local health professionals, who learn quite a bit sitting next to patients being examined remotely. The local doctor can follow up with suggested medication or tests, and join regular online training (Continuing Medical Education) without having to travel.
Isiolo has been so successful that the Kenyan government is rolling out similar projects in about 25 more facilities nationwide. It has also begun providing smaller facilities with an electronic medical records system, allowing better management of patient records and medical inventory.
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