The Importance of Telemedicine through Satellite in Africa (Part 1): South Africa and Uganda

By | July 12, 2016

This is the first article of the three-part series: “The Importance of Telemedicine through Satellite in Africa”.

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Telemedicine offers a new hope for medical patients in Africa. One of the biggest healthcare issues in Africa today is the poor level of medical services in the rural and remote regions.  The rural areas generally have worse medical services compared to urban areas and large cities. This is a big problem especially since the demand for professional medical services and medical aid in rural areas is increasing, while medical services have not been able to keep up. Telemedicine is one optimal way to provide professional healthcare services to rural areas in Africa. It allows patients to get medical aid from a distance using data communications, making it very beneficial for patients living in isolated communities and remote locations.

Application of VSAT to Telemedicine in Africa

Satellite Technology on VSAT platforms provides the most effective solution for telemedicine due to its unmatched coverage and service availability, especially for Africa with its very great land mass. VSAT provides the required connectivity between the users of medical applications, databases, video, and phones at remote or mobile sites. VSAT provides the crucial communication link between remote clinics with doctors engaged in on-site medical support, and the medical experts in various urban hospitals. Diagnostic data, images, and live videos can be transmitted between multiple urban hospitals and remote clinics in rural villages, regardless of how isolated or remote the locations are. VSAT also provides the bandwidth to remote sites so they can access logistical information regarding hospital and medical resources.

Telemedicine has enabled the remote regions of Africa to have access to medical information and medical expertise that are readily available in urban areas. A physician located far from urban hospitals can consult his or her colleagues remotely in order to solve a difficult medical case, follow a continuing education course over the Internet, or access medical information from digital libraries. Because of this remote access, telemedicine offers a great advantage to the population, and below we will go through the effects of telemedicine in South Africa and Uganda, and see the level of telemedicine infrastructure and the effects on the community.

  1. South Africa

South Africa is one of the countries in Africa where telemedicine has gained wide acceptance, and numerous projects for private telehealth centers were implemented across the country. Working through a public-private partnership (PPP), the use of telemedicine ensured that patient waiting times in South Africa are reduced in an efficient and cost effective manner.

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The South African Telemedical Resources (TMR) was formed in February 1998 as an entity that is owned by local and international shareholders, and employs medical specialists, the Medunsa School of Medicine, and a large group of private clinics. TMR`s mission is to provide multimedia products and systems that facilitate the healthcare decision making process. This is done through the development of telemedicine networks focusing on the transmission of images, sound, video and text based on the French-developed Mercury software telemedicine system. They have developed a Telemedicine Network  linking medical resources (specialists in radiology, pathology, and dermatology, etc.) with medical needs (patients, rural or under-serviced clinics, etc.) across the public and private healthcare sectors.

  1. Uganda

Uganda lacks the elaborate broadband backbone that South Africa has, so their telemedicine infrastructure is present, but it is still in the initial stages. While corporate organizations are monetizing telemedicine in South Africa, telemedicine in Uganda is largely non-commercial and provided by the government. The Ugandan government sometimes collaborates with international institutions to use telemedicine to improve patients’ access to quality healthcare. An example of such collaboration was shown in the announcement by the Ugandan government about a new Telemedicine Center in Uganda, in partnership with Apollo Hospitals in India.

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India’s Apollo Hospitals group is set to open a clinic, an information center, and a telemedicine network aimed at connecting doctors in Uganda to other experts around the world without having to travel there. The move is likely to reduce the amount of money spent by Ugandans to travel abroad for specialized medical care. In Uganda, breast and cervical cancers are some of the leading causes of death among women, and the telemedicine center and partnership with Apollo Hospitals aim to address this health issue in Uganda.

This article will be continued in the second part of this series titled: The Importance of Telemedicine through Satellite in Africa (Part 2): Ghana and Ethiopia.

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