Will telehealth improve Uganda’s healthcare system?

Telehealth uses ICT for the exchange of information for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health professionals. PHOTO | RACHEL MABALA

Telehealth is seen by many as a crucial intervention to increase access to universal health coverage in Uganda. 
With limited medical doctors and facilities across the country, the health sector is ripe for disruption by technology to improve healthcare services.  
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), telehealth is the use of ICT for the exchange of information for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health professionals.
Last year, Medical Concierge Group (TMCG), launched its telemedicine operations in Uganda. The main goal was to provide remote basic healthcare services such as diagnosis and delivery of medicine.
Recently, the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health launched two digital solutions valued at $800,000 (more than Shs2b) aimed at improving access to healthcare in rural communities.
The projects in their pilot phase will entail rolling out a data management digital solution in form of an application to health Centre IIs and IIIs across Kiryandongo, Koboko and Arua districts.
According to Mr Julio Malikane, UNCDF digital transformation expert on health and education, the inventory management platform, developed in cooperation with Medical Access Uganda Ltd and Signalytic will provide end-to-end visibility of data on management of essential drugs and medical supplies thereby enabling the Ugandan supply chains to become more agile and reducing stockouts.
“We are working with existing processes and bringing on top of them a digital solution that will facilitate their processes. Every time a drug is going out of the store, it will need to be updated in the system. By doing so, it will provide visibility to the District Health Officers as well as the central warehouse and help them manage the supply chain effectively,”  Mr Malikane says. 
In addition, a village digital health reporting service developed in cooperation with BRAC Uganda and Medic Mobile will digitalise the reporting system used by community healthcare volunteers to improve access to primary healthcare and referral of patients from the communities to health facilities.
Mr Olara Charles, the director curative services at Ministry of health, says government is seeking to leverage digital health to solve challenges such as poor commodity accountability, stockouts and overstocks of commodities in health facilities and weak community based surveillance systems among others. 
Dynamics of telehealth 
Digital innovations in telehealth have recently attracted heavy investment from capital funds during the covid-19 pandemic.
The need for investing in digital health was emphasized by Covid-19 induced lockdown in different countries, which limited face-to-face interaction between people amid a pandemic co-existing with other health needs.
Uganda Communications Commission report on the status of ICT for agricultural innovations released earlier this year, found that the health sector is ranked second after education in receiving interest from innovators with 22 per cent of the local innovations commercialized. 
However, lack of legislation around digital health is seen as an inhibitor of its prosperity. 
A global survey conducted by WHO on e-health in 2016, found that less than half of the member states had a specific national telehealth policy.  
The main barriers to the implementation of telehealth, according to WHO, were lack of funding to develop and support telehealth programmes,  lack of infrastructure (equipment and connectivity), competing health system priorities and a lack of legislation or regulations covering telehealth programmes.
In Uganda, the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioner’s Council last year cautioned the public about telemedicine, saying there is no law governing its operations in the country. 
The health assembly to which Uganda subscribes, adopted a resolution in 2013 urging member states to consider developing policies and legislative mechanisms linked to an overall national e-health strategy. 
Mr Olara said while Uganda was late to consider the resolution, it has since made strides in that direction by developing a digital health strategy and policy.