Uganda: Time to Marry Technology and Our Healthcare System
BY VINCENT M KIBERU:
Due to the rapid development in technological infrastructure, the daily use of information and communications technology in Uganda has become essential in addressing healthcare needs. Today, many Ugandans cannot do without mobile phones, radio, television and computers. If well harnessed, these tools can be used as a means of transforming public health practices through electronic delivery of healthcare services towards improved medication, diagnosis, treatment and adherence (call it e-health). Healthcare providers can thus remotely take care of their patients, cutting down on associated costs like transport.
With over 50% of Ugandans having access to a mobile telephone network, I commend the health sector for taking advantage of the growing telecommunications network. The Malaria Consortium, one of the world's leading non-profit organizations specialising in the prevention, control and treatment of malaria and other communicable diseases, has built a mobile data entry system to capture new malaria cases in Uganda and other countries weekly.
This is in addition to the recently- implemented District Health Management Information System (DHIS2), which is used in electronically receiving health data from health facilities at sub-county and village level as well as monitoring drug information and records.
However, not much has been done in as far as automating storage and retrieval of patients' medical records at public health facilities, something that largely contributes to patients' delays at a health facility. Searching for patients' files takes a long time and due to the large volumes of paperwork, such files can hardly be traced. This also leads to inconsistencies with patients' medical history, challenges with follow-ups and patient monitoring.
Consequently, electronic storage and retrieval of patients' records will improve process flow, boost health workers' morale, and render health facilities more patient-friendly. There could be skills deficiency in use of computers among health workers, particularly the lower cadres living in rural areas, but this can still be addressed through the National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U)'s e-governance framework of helping government sectors to go digital.
Integration of information and communications technology in the health sector bridges the digital divide, and its application in telemedicine will improve efficiency in the health care service delivery and management. The digital revolution will cause a profound impact on relations between healthcare providers, patients and the entire community.
Likewise, creating community awareness on immunisation, adherence to treatment of chronic diseases would minimise the costs associated with administering the treatment, hence avoiding drug wastage. Additionally, there are information and communications technology software tools that can be applied to promote doctor/patient communication.
Social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype, and even e-mail, can easily be accessed on either a mobile phone or an internet-enabled computer. This is now feasible, as internet subscription has become more affordable, with now a variety of choices due to the increasing availability of service providers.
It is already working in developed countries, where most aspects of the healthcare and consumer health experience are supported by a wide array of technology such as electronic and personal health records, biometric and telemedicine devices, and consumer-focused wireless and wired Internet applications.
With the digital revolution in government institutions under the e-governance framework, a health policy gradually transiting from the paper-filing system of patients' personal medical records to an electronic database will greatly improve efficiency the situation and motivate the limited staff to work better.
A similar model used while implementing a pharmaceutical stock and financial management can be adopted by acquiring licence-free software which will require a very limited and affordable budget for implementation. Despite some challenges at public health facilities, including inconsistent electricity supply, limited computer skills with lower cadres, the huge cost of information technology infrastructure (computers and networking equipment), this can work if we take a phased approach.
It will be essential that clinicians, managers, policy makers and researchers gain an increased understanding of this trend so that healthcare systems in Uganda can adapt, adopt, and embrace these rapidly-evolving digital technologies.
Sources: The Observer (Kampala)