Charity

The Virtual Doctors

LINKING RURAL AREAS IN ZAMBIA TO MEDICAL SPECIALISTS WORLDWIDE

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The Virtual Doctors, a Sussex-based telemedicine charity, could be about to become part of the medical curriculum at the main clinical training college in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. With the majority of Clinical Officers and Medical Licentiates being trained at Chainama College of Health Sciences, the development could lead to a countrywide rollout of the project which began just under two years ago.

The Virtual Doctors was set up to help improve the local primary healthcare in some of the most remote and impoverished areas of Africa – where people regularly walk or cycle long distances to their nearest clinic or referral hospital, and even then often receive inadequate treatment or diagnosis due to the centre being under-resourced.

Using local broadband networks, The Virtual Doctors can link remote rural health centres in Zambia to doctors and medical specialists in the UK, and around the world, who provide much needed diagnosis and treatment advice.

Zambia’s growing population of 15 million is only served by about 1,200 doctors; about half that number leaves the country each year to work abroad. The remaining doctors – about the same number as work at Brighton’s Royal Sussex County Hospital – are mainly based in urban areas, leaving the two-thirds of the population living in rural areas without access to a doctor.

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The Virtual Doctors’ director, Huw Jones, recalls the time he picked up a man cycling his heavily pregnant wife to a hospital in remote eastern Zambia: “I had found her blood on the road long before I picked them up. He had taken her to the rural health centre just outside their village, but the clinic staff could not help them. With no ambulance available, he took the only option he had, to try and cycle his wife to the nearest hospital, over 100kms away. By the time I found them she was in a very poor state and she very sadly and very quietly passed away in the back of my Landrover. I shall never forget it and it drove me to do my bit to help.”

With the rapid growth of the mobile phone network in Africa, the internet is available in some of the most remote areas. Suddenly communities who have never had access to a book now have the potential to access Facebook and Google.

The Virtual Doctors uses the mobile phone network so that rural health centre staff needing help with a complicated diagnosis can send electronic patient files to a global network of volunteer doctors. It’s a simple, efficient and cost- effective solution, and it’s saving lives.

Evidence of the impact the charity is having can be seen in the move by the Zambian Ministry of Health to allow TB patients to be treated by local Clinical Officers (COs), provided the diagnosis has been confirmed by The Virtual Doctors. Previously, COs were not permitted, by law, to treat patients with TB even if they had the relevant TB drugs on site. This development goes some way to preventing unnecessary deaths and reducing the number of referrals, avoiding the need for people to travel long distances for treatment. And when they’re not travelling, children can be at school and adults can work to support their families.

The Virtual Doctors is entirely funded by private donations and grants. It costs approximately £20 – the cost of an off-peak London to Brighton train fare – to run each Virtual Doctor clinic for a month, but even £3 a month can help to make a life-changing difference to thousands of people who desperately need help.

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To support the work of The Virtual Doctors, go to www.virtualdoctors.org/support-us

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