Telemedicine in Africa: Connecting Professionals in the Fight against Cancer
Delegates from African Member States recently gathered in Vienna to participate in an IAEA technical meeting aimed at setting-up a telemedicine network for radiation oncology consultation in Africa. A telemedicine network allows health professionals to communicate through interactive audio-visual media, allowing parties on either end to rapidly share information regardless of where they are. For example, patient cases can then be presented, discussed, and courses of action outlined in real time. Such a tool for interaction between cancer specialists will greatly improve patient care in Africa, where in some countries radiotherapy infrastructure is limited and out-dated.
“At this time, 29 African countries have no radiotherapy services at all,” says Eduardo Rosenblatt, head of the IAEA’s Applied Radiation Biology and Radiotherapy Section, “and as the population in the region continues to grow it is essential that these countries have the resources necessary to cope with such a huge demand.” The demand is indeed large, and is steadily increasing. With a total population of more than 1000 million and a cancer incidence of 302.800 new patients per year, Africa’s cancer epidemic is one of the most important development challenges it faces.
However, only a handful of radiotherapy centres in a few countries could be considered as competent centres with state-of-the-art patient care. The majority of radiotherapy centres in Africa work in relative isolation with little to no access to modern technological resources. The situation is worsened by the fact that there is a shortage of health care professionals trained to operate such high-tech equipment. As a result, patients seen in radiotherapy departments in least developed countries are treated in accordance with varying local policies which are not always in line with internationally accepted standards of care.
With the help of new communications technology, radiotherapy departments in Africa and in the developed world can be brought closer together. “Radiation oncology is a discipline that is experiencing tremendous technological development. With new equipment and treatment strategies we can achieve improved results,” says Mr Rosenblatt. By taking advantage of modern telemedicine technology, the IAEA is facilitating a network of communication to broaden the discussion on the optimal treatment for cancer patients in different countries.
‘Telemedicine,’ as it is called, may be as simple as two health professionals discussing a case over the telephone, or as complex as using satellite technology and videoconferencing equipment to conduct real time consultation between specialists in different continents. Nevertheless, while telemedicine typically refers to the use of communications and information technologies for the delivery of clinical care, it can also be used as a teaching tool. For example, by setting up a videoconference an experienced health care professional can show and instruct an entire medical staff in another location how to be more effective or use faster examination techniques. In this context, telemedicine also takes advantage of teleconferencing tools to establish a real-time professional board to discuss individual patient cases, effectively forging an online live meeting.
The technical meeting organized by Mr Rosenblatt and his colleagues brought together teleconference experts from the IAEA and a group of selected potential participating centres in Africa in order to establish a terms-of-reference document and draft a work plan. The next step is to ensure that each of the participating centres have access to the technology necessary for teleconferencing, which may be as simple as developing broad-band internet connectivity. As the project moves forward, Mr Rosenblatt is confident that improved networking between participating radiotherapy centres on the continent and in other regions will help build capacity for clinical problem solving in radiation oncology and better equip African Member States with the tools to fight cancer.