New African telemedicine service paves the way to quality care for all Ethiopians

Addis Ababa 06 February 2001The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation has undertaken the necessary actions to begin a telemedicine service. Ato Berhanu Yifru, head of the Value Added and Multimedia Service Division at ETC stated that the partners in the new service to be introduced include the Ministry of Health, the Ethiopian Telecommunications Agency, and the Faculty of Medicine at Addis Ababa University. A national body, called Telemedicine Committee, was set up about a year ago to co-ordinate between these agencies as well as to get support and consultations from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

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ITU, a United Nations special agency, gives support to developing nations by providing a consultancy service in telecommunications in order to deliver basic services to beneficiary countries utilising the medium. The telemedicine service which will be started in a very short term, will enable medical professionals to give and receive medical information easily. The project is just waiting for the go-ahead from the Geneva-headquarters of ITU.

The Ethiopian Telecom is currently planning to use the Internet as a means to transfer medical information and data about a patient in a rural area to a city centre where a medical expert can apply the information, diagnose the patient, and send his or her opinion or even prescribe medicine. Using this technology, a health worker will be able, for instance, to send the x-ray of a patient to be analysed and diagnosed by a physician located elsewhere at a remote site.

In this way, a patient can be seen by any physician who is connected to the system in just a few minutes, depending on the efficiency of connectivity as well as the speed at which the doctor can actually download the information, analyse it, and send his prescriptions. This method, as Ato Berhanu stated, is widely used in the United States but is particularly useful to developing countries. The conditions under which these services are provided depend on each country. In Ethiopia, the agencies engaged in the provision of the service will be the four partners announced by Mr. Berhanu but they will be assisted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNESCO.

The telemedicine service will enable medical students to engage in distance learning, a method which allows professionals to exchange ideas, attend virtual classes, as well as get advice from specialised experts on a particular subject or case. A medical doctor, in the middle of a session with a patient or who comes across a certain medical complication, can easily download information from specialised sites or connect with doctors who are available on-line. Ato Berhanu explained that there will not be trained any additional professionals for this technology to be introduced in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Telecom Corporation already has its own professionals able to run the system. However, physicians will be given an acquaintance training with the communication devices. Among the communication devices will be, for instance, an x-ray machine connected with the computer which will allow the health worker to take an x-ray of the patient and transmit the image digitally to the doctor who will download it for diagnosis.

In this manner, any less qualified health worker will be able to offer health care in various fields such as dermatology, cardiology, etc. in a short period of time to patients living in rural or inaccessible areas. Qualified doctors can also use the system to exchange medical opinions or get expert support. This technology will save time and can be cost-effective in that it allows medical investment granted to one location, to also benefit various health centres in the area.

Multimedia is among the three new divisions set up by the Corporation when it underwent restructuring. This division includes Telemedicine, Value Added Service such as the voice messaging service already being provided to mobile phone users, Virtual Telephone which will be launched soon, a new Distance Learning service, and TV Re-broadcasting as well as Multimedia Service. The Ethiopian Telecom Corporation was determined in taking the lead in this breakthrough technology, which, if used properly and efficiently, will save a lot of lives and will meet the medical needs of thousands of Ethiopians.

This is possible because it will be easier investment-wise, to set up health care units throughout the country with very good computers and reliable communications hardware and networking devices. One doctor can be based in one location and be able to see patients in far away places. Earlier, the Ethiopian Ministry of Transport and Communication decided to invest 2.5 billion birr, one dollar equalling to 8.4 birr, in promoting the growth of digital and mobile telecommunications, and Internet services.


Leslie Versweyveld

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