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Healing from a distance: Can telemedicine improve healthcare in Nigeria during COVID-19 pandemic?

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Semawon is sick in her village somewhere in a border town between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin.

The nearest hospital to her is in Badagry, a town about 30 kilometres away. Travelling down to Badagry will aggravate her condition and put stress on her limited funds. Moreover, getting transportation to Badagry will be a tad difficult. Her phone sits nearby on the mat on which she lies. What other options does she have? How can she access quality healthcare despite her situation?

Many Nigerians go through similar struggles, especially at a time when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has sent shockwaves throughout the world, creating fear and anxiety, and driving billions of people into mandatory or voluntary confinement.

The COVID-19 disease, which was first discovered in late 2019, has exploded into a pandemic, spreading to 216 countries and territories globally. So far, as of July 23, there are over 15 million confirmed coronavirus cases across the world, with over 630,000 fatalities. In Nigeria, just over five months after the index case was discovered on February 25, a total of over 38,000 confirmed cases and over 800 deaths have been recorded.

The disease has put a visible strain on the medical system as health services struggle to manage cases and contain further spread of the virus. The crisis highlights the need for urgent action to cushion the health and economic consequences, protect vulnerable populations, and set the stage for a lasting recovery.

This pandemic also comes at a time when sorting facts from fiction is increasingly difficult. Multiple people have been hospitalised after overdosing on chloroquine following rumours, publicly endorsed by reputable personalities including US President Donald Trump, that the drug could treat the virus. Although these myths and conspiracy theories are continually debunked by medical organisations, with false information being more sophisticated than ever and its potential spread wider, fake news remains a major threat to the health of the public.

Considering all the factors affecting the effective delivery of healthcare services during the ongoing crisis, one major intervention various countries across the world are adopting in the containment and management of the COVID-19 disease is telemedicine, the exchange of medical information from one location to another using electronic communication.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have urged physicians and other health care providers to use telemedicine in the fight against Covid-19.

Globally, affected countries are deploying telemedicine as a frontline weapon against the COVID-19 pandemic.

When a 21-day lockdown was enforced in Zimbabwe, free medical consulting services were offered to members of the public who could no longer access health facilities due to the lockdown measures.

Obstetrics and Gynaecology patients could send messages via WhatsApp and Short Message Service (SMS) to doctors who would respond in real time.

For countries like India, where its medical health industry has ground to a halt, telemedicine provides many Indians the much-needed access to health care and also helps to sustain the country’s health sector.

Across Asia, the use of telemedicine was on the rise before COVID-19. Now, due to overstretched health services and social distancing measures to combat the spread of the disease, its use has dramatically accelerated, as social distancing has become the new norm. In China, a country whose digital ecosystem is more mature, telemedicine usage has remained elevated even as physical clinics reopen.

Through this technology, the potential growth of the health industry is promising. According to a report from Market Data Forecast, Asia-Pacific’s telemedicine market is expected to grow from $8.5 billion this year to $22.5 billion by 2025. Likewise, Statista reports that the telemedicine global market, which was valued at $45 billion in 2019, is expected to grow significantly by 2026 and be worth over $175 billion.

In Nigeria, with the introduction of telemedicine, there is hope for people like Semawon, who may not have direct access to a medical professional, and the healthcare industry as a whole.

Digital transformation in the healthcare industry will benefit Nigeria in various ways. Telemedicine will provide immediate intervention to all citizens to consult freely with medical personnel and clarify if the symptoms they are experiencing are related to COVID-19. This virtual diagnosis, in turn, protects health workers from potential infection, reduces the financial resources deployed in the management of cases, allays the fear of the public, and manages the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

With telemedicine being an important aspect of healthcare, especially concerning Nigeria’s response to handling the COVID-19 pandemic effectively, it is necessary to have forward-thinking companies and initiatives to make useful contributions to the containment of the disease.

The Lagos State Ministry of Health, through the Lagos State Health Management Agency (LASHMA), recently launched an initiative called Eko Telemed for residents, as part of its efforts to protect citizens and reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19.

According to the Acting General Manager of Lagos State Health Management Agency (LASHMA), Dr. Emmanuella Zamba, Eko Telemed increases residents’ access to care and reduces the challenge of going to hospitals, except for emergencies.

Based on the projected number of cases expected in the coming weeks, opting for home-based care will augment the limited number of isolation beds, address logistic challenges and patients’ preference for recovery in the comfort of their homes.

It also creates an entry point for the quicker evacuation of confirmed and severely ill COVID-19 cases to the designated treatment facility. This ensures better health outcomes for affected citizens and reduces morbidity and mortality associated with the pandemic.

At a time when human interactions are evolving due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this initiative ensures the provision of adequate, relevant, reliable and relatable information, helps to debunk fake news and provides safety, health and precautionary tips that could help people stay safe, informed and protected. It will also help to build a database of information that could help researchers and scholars during and after the outbreak.

Through the project, residents have 24-hour access to highly trained and experienced physicians for non-emergency primary care consultation through voice or video call. Residents who develop any COVID-19 health issues can call 08000EKOMED or 08000356633 toll-free line for consultation and converse with experienced doctors in any of the four major languages in Lagos State: English, Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo.

State healthcare functionaries can reach out to patients at home and determine a need for greater intervention, such as provision of supplements or evacuation, at any stage. Community-based management teams will also manage Covid-19 patients based on set parameters and specific protocols.

If further medical treatment is needed after due consultation with the medical doctors, COVID-19 cases would be referred to designated healthcare providers under the Lagos State Health Scheme or preferred healthcare providers.


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