The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak (also called COVID-19, or 2019-nCoV, or SARS-CoV-2) as pandemic, after it was previously declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. As 2019-nCoV continues to spread around the world, African nations are not left out of the threats and the uncertainties. As of 11 April 2020, more than 12,000 2019-nCoV cases and estimated 700 deaths have been reported in 52 African nations. The uptrend in the number of confirmed cases and mortality due to 2019-nCoV is a further concern. Additionally, African countries are experiencing a double burden of diseases; that is, in addition to dealing with endemic infectious diseases, health systems in the continent are facing numerous non-communicable diseases ranging from cancer to several cardiovascular diseases including stroke and hypertension. Most of all, the fragile healthcare system in the continent is another concern.
In response to the pandemic, health authorities continue to advocate for physical distancing, targeted testing, staying at home, lockdown and international and local travels restriction, proper hand and respiratory hygiene among other precautionary measures. These measures prove best essential roles that every individual can play to flatten the curve and further reduce the spread of the virus. As the 2019-nCoV wreaks havoc with the relatively fragile healthcare system on the continent, telemedicine provides the opportunity that worth exploring in providing healthcare services to those who have contracted the virus and individuals who need to reach out to their providers. In addition, telemedicine can also allow for knowledge sharing between healthcare professionals within and outside a region. It thus allows long-distance patient and clinician contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring and remote admissions.
With the use of telemedicine, there is little or no barrier to delivering of health care services to everyone who needs it, especially in times like this. Also, telemedicine will help bridge the gap between the public, healthcare givers and health systems, enabling everyone to stay at home and communicate with physicians through virtual channels, helping to limit the spread of the virus to others, including the frontline healthcare workers.
Quite a number of people are scared to visit hospitals for medical attention not associated with 2019-nCoV and for such patients, telemedicine may proffer an opportunity not to leave them out of medical attention and services. For instance, in resource limited settings, hotline can be leverage upon to connect patients with a qualified health care professional. These hotlines can be communicated on billboards, media for broadcast and for those with smart phones, a means of a video-call or audio-call can be provided to connect with health care professional from their homes. The same approach can be applied to local pharmacies to improve access to pharmacists for medication-related questions and information. Subconsciously, some African nations are already leveraging telemedicine in responding to the pandemic e.g. for symptoms reporting to health authorities.
The use of telemedicine in Africa is not without challenges. Some of the challenges include: infrastructural barriers, high maintenance and support costs, limited human resources, acceptance of the technology, poverty and poor health literacy among others. With these challenges, the benefits of telemedicine are ever real and significant. In fact, it is a potential strategy to facilitate universal health coverage and it is worth exploring.
African nations should not be left behind in its implementation. It is therefore essential for African government to look into this option as the future of healthcare is tending towards technology. Efforts should also be made to build the capacity of healthcare providers on telemedicine and its benefits. It is also important to support project that gear towards advancing telemedicine on the continent. This pandemic further reinforces the need to accelerate the use of telemedicine in Africa.
by Awolola Timileyin Omolayo and Adebisi Yusuff Adebayo (Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria)
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