The Virtual Doctors: Developing a Sustainable Telemedicine Service in Rural Africa

In this blog, I want to tell you about the Virtual Doctors, a UK-based NGO that I have been volunteering with for the past 2 years. I also want to share the challenges that COVID-19 presents to the rural health centres that we support, within Zambia and Malawi.

The Virtual Doctors: Developing a Sustainable Telemedicine Service in Rural Africa

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This is a guest blog from Dr Daniel Grace MBBS BSc (Hons) Dip EWM MRCGP MFTM RCPS(Glasg), Medical Director of Virtual Doctors

In this blog, I want to tell you about the Virtual Doctors, a UK-based NGO that I have been volunteering with for the past 2 years. I also want to share the challenges that COVID-19 presents to the rural health centres that we support, within Zambia and Malawi.

Since 2010, the Virtual Doctors have worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Health of Zambia to help improve the quality of primary healthcare for rural communities. Based in the UK, we offer remote medical advice to clinical officers, when they have a complex patient, or a clinical dilemma that they need assistance with.  Clinical officers, based at the health centres, have a smartphone that is equipped with a bespoke app that allows them to send a referral to a doctor, based either in the UK or within Zambia. The volunteer doctor can then log on, view the case and offer appropriate advice, as shown in the short video below.

One of our main aims is to reduce the need for patients having to travel over long distances, at great expense, to reach the nearest hospital if they have a condition that can be managed with remote advice at the local health centre.

We have a wide range of volunteer doctors, spanning primary and secondary care, including GPs, surgeons, gynaecologists and infectious disease specialists. A case usually takes around 20-30 minutes to answer, and can be read wherever there is an internet connection!

The Impact of COVID-19

With the global spread of COVID-19 our work is now more relevant than ever before. We have therefore launched the Virtual Doctors’ COVID-19 Response Fund, to support the Ministry of Health in preventing the spread of the virus, whilst continuing to provide telemedical support to 140 remote health centres across Zambia.

As part of this, we aim to provide these health centres with foot-operated hand washing basins that can be used by both staff and patients. On average, up to 150 patients will visit each health centre every day! It is therefore essential that we also provide enough soaps, sanitisers, cleaning and disinfecting products, to account for this.

We are always keen to hear from doctors who are interested in volunteering. To get involved, you only need three things:

  1. An active GMC registration
  2. CCT*
  3. An internet connection

*If you do not yet have CCT, we may be able to accept you on a case by case basis: for example, if you have DTM&H or are a senior registrar, approaching CCT.

To apply, please email me: daniel.grace@virtualdoctors.org

If you can spare a minute to make a donation or spread the word about our appeal, we would be really grateful. Or tag us on social media #cleanwaterforclinics

Daniel is a locum GP, event and expedition doctor, and a Member of the Faculty of Travel Medicine. He is also an alumnus of the Diploma in Expedition and Wilderness Medicine, and you can read his article about this in the latest issue of Emporiatrics.

This article was written by Daniel Grace.


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