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Breathing new life to health system

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Forty-five-year-old Blandina Petulo (not real name) from Blantyre rural is on antiretroviral therapy (ART) having tested positive two years ago.

Petulo walks more than 20 kilometres to access ART and thanks to the Community of Saint Egidio through the Dream Programme that she is able to get treatment for free at Kapeni Dream Centre.

But with all that said, Petulo has been struggling with other diseases and this has put her life at risk.

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“It’s been hard for me to seek medical attention for other diseases. In most cases, we are referred to other hospitals which are very far and this is a big challenge as already we struggle to come to Kapeni Dream Centre,” Petulo says.

Dream Programme Medical Doctor Jaan Baptiste Sagno says many patients on ART are dying not because of the HIV infection but because of other non-communicable diseases.

“We have diseases like diabetes and hypertension among others and in Malawi we have very few specialists for these diseases and when a patient is sent to a referral hospital, sometimes the assistance takes time and in most cases patients cannot afford to pay for transport to go to top hospitals,” Sagno says.

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And having noted such challenges in Malawi and other African countries, some people have been working hard to introduce m u l t i d i s c i p l i n a r y telemedicine service aimed at breathing life to the health system and also connect patients to specialists.

According to Wikipedia, telemedicine is the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide clinical health care from a distance.

The process helps eliminate distance barriers and can improve access to medical services that would often not be consistently available in distant rural communities.

The system is also used to save lives in critical-care and emergency situations.

The telemedicine service has since been inaugurated at Kapeni Dream Centre in Blantyre with the main sponsor of the project being ASL Roma 4 from Italy.

ASL Roma 4 General Manager Giuseppe Quintavalle says the money for the telemedicine service project was realised through fundraising from, among others, Italian friends.

“This is a very cheap and effective way to reach everyone in need of care in this beautiful country, Malawi,” he says.

ASL Roma 4 is working with Global Health Telemedicine Onlus in this project.

Global Health Telemedicine is a non-profit organisation that was born from the Community of Saint Egidio’s Dream Programme and it offers a service of medical teleconsultation, a multidisciplinary which makes use of a pool of Italian specialists who provide advice free of charge.

Sagno says telemedicine is very helpful, adding that this is part of the Dream 2.0 which is a global health programme.

“This new service will be open to everyone not just to those who are in the Dream Programme. We hope that with the coming of telemedicine, we will transform Kapeni and Malawi,” he says.

Sagno says there are diseases that they will not be able to treat and that through telemedicine, they will be able to connect the patient to the specialist and get feedback.

“This will solve a lot of problems because we will no longer refer patients to other hospitals and patients will also minimise costs,” he says.

Telemedicine Chief Michelangelo Bartolo from San Giovanni Hospital in Rome, Italy, says Global Health Telemedicine wants to offer concrete help to remote health centres that are eligible to receive reports of instrumental and/or diagnostic and therapeutic indication examinations on different clinical cases.

“This is a chance to improve the health of people, through this system, we can ask the second opinion for any disease,” Bartolo says.

He says in Italy they have more than 100 specialists who are ready to help.

“Of course, we are still in the preliminary stages, some diseases need more but we have started that is the important thing and I can tell you that we have close to 23 centres of telemedicine and through this, we are connecting Europe and Africa,” he says.

Senior Chief Kapeni, who had to be examined through telemedicine during the launch, describes the system as important.

“We just want to thank God for this because through telemedicine, people will have a chance to be connected to specialists in Europe. This is the first time for me to hear about this system in Malawi,” the traditional leader says.

He says through Kapeni Dream Centre, patients would be able to be examined on different diseases and then be connected to doctors, who are specialists in the fields and then given advice.

Kapeni Dream Centre started in 2007 and has assisted so far 1,336 patients and 486 patients are on ART.

While Kapeni Dream Centre gets sponsorship from ASL Roma 4, Rotary Club Roma Nord Est, Rotary Club of Limbe are the main sponsors of the telemedicine service at Mtendere Dream Centre situated at Mtendere Community Hospital in Dedza.

Past President Rotary Club Roma Giampaolo Regensburger and Incoming President Rotary Club Limbe Mohamed Tayub say the telemedicine service has come at the right time in that it allows a population to have access to specialists.

Traditional Authority Mtendere says to succeed in life as people, there is need to work as a unit and that telemedicine service is one of the ways.

“This service will surely help in that people from the rural areas, for instance here, who do not have chances of being seen by specialists will now do so. In this global village, this is what we need,” Mtendere says.

Mtendere Community Hospital In-charge Agnes Jonas says the telemedicine service would go a long way in helping patients suffering from various diseases.

“The good news is that the telemedicine service is not only targeting HIV and Aids patients but all patients suffering from different diseases,” she says.

Jonas says the installation of the software for the service is long overdue in that it was discussed and agreed in the preparatory works of Mtendere Dream Centre establishment in 2007.

“Now the software is here, it is a dream come true, a pride to Mtendere Community Hospital and a huge milestone in the improvement of patient and client services,” Jonas says.

She says Dream services at Mtendere were initiated at the hospital in 2008 through the relationship with the Teresian Sisters among others.

Community of Saint Egidio’s Dream Programme Country Coordinator Roberto Lunghi also describes telemedicine as an important project in connecting patients to specialists in Italy.

The telemedicine service requires services such as electricity and Internet connection which in the developing countries such as Malawi is a challenge.

The Internet for instance is very slow in the country and there are frequent blackouts which is surely a threat to the telemedicine service.

But there is hope in some health centres in the rural areas where they are using solar system in the absence of electricity from Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi.

“We need power in place and the Internet is very important but we have tried various means to make sure that this is working effectively and we are currently working with health personnel’s in the centres to make sure that they master everything for easy connection with the specialists,” Bartolo says.

With telemedicine, there surely is new breath in the health system with the population set to be connected to specialists free of charge and this is important for people in the rural areas, who have no chance to be seen by specialists.

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