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Virtual doctors: Telemedicine kits in Benin

Joanna using one of the new telemedicine kits
Joanna using one of the new telemedicine kits

Elias was nine when he became ill. He was very weak, always thirsty and lost a lot of weight. His situation was desperate but his parents weren’t able to get him to the hospital, a two day walk away. This is often the reality for people living in remote communities. But things are changing thanks to increasing investment in ICT4D – the use of information communication technologies, such as the internet and mobile technology for development.

In Benin, where Elias is from, a telemedicine kit now bridges the gap between patients and doctors, and makes health screenings of patients with limited or no access to medical facilities possible. 

“Without this equipment, who knows what would have happened to my son!”

When Joanne, an SOS health worke, noticed Elias’ condition during one of her routine visits to the communities served by our Family Strengthening Programmes in Abomey-Calavi, Benin, she got out her new telemedicine kit. The kit contains multiple diagnostic tools including a laptop, a thermometer, a blood pressure monitor and basic medication. Joanne used the laptop and the innovative Safe Patient Systems programme, a mobile healthcare programme, to record a range of Elias’ medical data including his body temperature, weight, height, blood pressure and blood sugar level. She then transmitted the data in real-time over Inmarsats’s Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN). BGAN is a global satellite internet network that uses small, easily transportable ‘terminals’ to connect laptops to broadband internet in remote locations.

Over 125 miles away, the doctor on duty at the SOS Medical Centre in Dassa-Zoumé analysed the data Joanne transmitted and provided her with an almost immediate diagnosis and advice. Elias had diabetes. “I did not know that my son was suffering from hypoglycaemia,” says Elias’ father, Robert. “But after the analysis with the new health kit this has been detected and the nurse has referred us to the hospital where my son has started treatment. Without this equipment, who knows what would have happened to my son!”

“The telemedicine kit means that our health workers can collect lots of medical data during their regular visits to the communities that are part of SOS Children’s Family Strengthening Programmes,” Mr Salimane Issifou, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages explains. “It is, quite literally, life saving.”

An SOS health worker uses a new telemedicine kit in Benin
The telemedicine kits provide health workers in remote areas with life-saving diagnoses

Improving survival rates

The next time Joanne visits Elias’ village, she checks his health, updates his records using the Safe Patient System and consults the doctor again to make sure Elias is getting the best treatment possible. “When the nurse rechecked my son’s blood sugar levels using the telemedicine kit, she was able to confirm with the doctor that he finally has a stable blood sugar level and is healthy,” says a relieved Robert.

So far the kit has helped the medical team from SOS Children's Village Dassa- Zoumé detect and treat respiratory infections, skin diseases, otitis, bronchitis, eye diseases and malnutrition among children. Significantly, diseases and complications that affect pregnant women and babies have been detected in the early stages, rather than when it’s too late.

Innovative project monitoring

With the project still in its pilot stage it is crucial that the impact the kits are having is measured. Data is collected everyday using mobile phones, smartphones. Using a ground-breaking mobile application called Poimapper, which enables mobile users to collect, share and visualise geographically tagged data as it is produced, SOS Children have been able to build up an accurate and detailed picture of when and where the telemedicine kits are being used. We can also analyse the impact the kits are having on individuals and communities as a whole and whether targets are being met. This allows for a constant overview of the evolution of the project meaning that SOS Children are able to make adjustments immediately.

Find out more

Using ICT4D is becoming increasingly useful and important - in particular for healthcare, where it's benefits are signficant. There are numerous mHealth (mobile health) initiatives, such as the telemedicine kits talked about here, springing up across the developing world.

Find out more about the transformational potential of ICT4D’s.