Telemedicine networks improve healthcare in rural areas

Telemedicine ensures affordable and quality health care by allowing doctors to diagnose and treat patients in remote areas via video link. PHOTO | ANGIE OKETCH
Telemedicine ensures affordable and quality health care by allowing doctors to diagnose and treat patients in remote areas via video link. PHOTO | ANGIE OKETCH 

Telemedicine is changing the way patients in rural and remote parts of the world can access medication and improve health.

In Kenya, improved telecommunication infrastructure and adoption of mobile phones has enabled the rollout of several initiatives through telemedicine and are currently benefiting many.

Pamela Anyango, 24, from Kisumu is one of the beneficiaries of such initiatives. The widowed mother of four survives on buying and selling fish like most women in her community. On a good day she makes about Sh400 which can barely sustain the family.

Ms Anyango cannot afford time away from her fish business or leave her children alone to seek reproductive health services. Her youngest three- year-old child looks malnourished and has a skin disease.

Ms Anyango’s story is typical of a lot of women in most rural Kenya. For this reason, the World Health Programme intervened in 2009 to help women like her by bringing health care closer to where they are and to help them make informed choices about their reproductive health and the wellbeing of their children.


The programme brings healthcare within a walking distance for all people. They connect healthcare professionals and local entrepreneurs through technology-enabled networks to deliver services in rural and underserved communities.

They have built a brand telemedicine-enabled healthcare network called Sky. This connects village healthcare providers to better trained medical workers as well as to mobile and digital networks.

The Sky mostly focuses on substantially improving Reproductive Maternal Neonatal Child Health (RMNCH) in rural communities through the “here and now” initiative.

Through the Sky Network, women receive reproductive health services and children are tested and given treatment for tuberculosis, pneumonia and diarrhoea, among other diseases.

The approach has produced remarkable results. Most of the social entrepreneurs are women who are at the cornerstones of the village networks; they facilitate consultations with doctors in remote areas to ensure the communities can access better service.

“The Every Woman Every Child approach is very much in line with WHP’s model to bring healthcare within a walkable distance for women and children in the world’s most underserved communities,” said Gopi Gopalakrishnan, WHP President and Founder.

“I am proud to make a commitment to expand our work in Kenya to reach eight million people with maternal, child and newborn care through our unique approach of using technology and business acumen to connect community health workers, local entrepreneurs and healthcare professionals to expand services.

“In a number of instances, the community members, due to distance and lack of finance, delay in seeking medical attention when they are sick, turn to traditional healers or buy medications from local drug stores without proper prescription.

“What this means is that the disease progresses or is wrongly or under treated leading to issues like drug resistance. Providing an opportunity for teleconsultation from the nearby Sky centre in their village ensures that they can talk to qualified medical personnel who can give proper prescription and follow- up,” says Mr Gopalakrishnan.

“We are thrilled that WHP is committing at the highest level to grow its work in Kenya by providing women and children in with healthcare services for over five years,” said Dollina Odera, the programme’s leader in Kenya.

She added that WHP’s model can help women register their pregnancies, get early prenatal care and receive timely high-quality care especially for high-risk pregnancies. “These networks save lives in places that are otherwise hard to reach.”

The programme aims to expand by partnering with the public sector, including collaboration with 300 government-trained community health volunteers as well as an additional 100 health entrepreneurs, primarily women, who WHP will train to offer basic care in consultation with doctors.

“World Health Partners’ model of empowering female health entrepreneurs provides a 21st century solution to meeting health outcomes,” added Ms Odera.

“By supporting women’s economic empowerment which lies at the heart of the development challenge and harnessing the power of new technologies and partnerships, the model promises a practical, community-centered approach with a truly sustainable impact.”

WHP’s healthcare network in Kenya is modelled on years of successful work in India, where Sky Networks in two states have offered more than 160, 000 teleconsultations, largely for primary care.

In India, it has seen a 50 per cent drop in cases of diarrhoea and pneumonia over two and half years.

Through teleconsultation, Ms Anyango and other patients can be counselled on phone without leaving their work stations. They can then get referrals for quick service at a clinic in the network or at any other facility.

A patient’s medical history, details and reference will already be in the data base. Children can also be assessed on wellness—identifying any possible gaps on immunisation.

The medical history of people like Ms Anyango can be uploaded and sent to virtual medical provider to further help with the diagnosis and management.

The trial project launched in Kenya last year in July was able to generate over 1,500 teleconsultations both in Siaya and Kisumu counties. The project has since been rolled out to Homa Bay.

There are 22 centres in WHP’s Kisumu office. These are owned by woman entrepreneurs drawn from the communities following extensive training and mentorship.

In Homa Bay County, seven centres are active with an additional 15 personnel trained last month, adding up to a total of 44 providers trained to facilitate teleconsultations.

“We are poised to increase these numbers in the coming months,” said Ms Odera.