We live in a world that has wide healthcare disparities that negatively impact individuals in certain places around the globe. Shortages of doctors, healthcare supplies, medications, and healthcare facilities cause people in disadvantaged areas to suffer from preventable and/or treatable ailments. Humanitarian aid organizations work tirelessly to close the health disparity gap, and telemedicine provides a promising way to do it.

Healthcare Disparities and the World

Lack of access to healthcare is a problem that occurs around the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa specifically, the severe lack of healthcare professionals causes many people to go without life-saving medical treatment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are only 2.3 doctors for every 100,000 people in Africa. This number is very low, especially when compared to the 33.3 doctors for every 100,000 in Europe. Due to this gap, people with treatable conditions, such as facial clefts and injuries go without care, which subsequently negatively impacts their overall quality of life.

In an effort to tackle this growing problem, physicians and health care providers from more developed countries often volunteer their time and expertise to help patients in vulnerable populations around the globe. Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the American Red Cross, and Oxfam are dedicated to aiding under-served populations.

Traditionally, humanitarian medical work is given when a physician travels to the place of need and physically delivers care. However, as shown by the research article, The Contribution of Telemedicine to Humanitarian Surgery, published in the Journal of Cranio-Maxillo-Facial Surgery, remote patient monitoring and tele-consultations were tremendous contributions to Caen University Hospital’s humanitarian efforts.

The Mission

The research article follows the teleconsultations between the maxillofacial surgery department at Caen University Hospital in France, and Bamako Hospital in Mali. In Normandy, France, the Health Cooperation Group supports regional and national telehealth initiatives. With the help of this organization, Caen University Hospital was able to set up a network between France and Mali. Over the course of the project, 21 patients with multiple different types of facial clefts were seen.

The University Hospital of Bamako, led by Prof. Traore, is generally able to treat the majority of disorders encountered. However, complicated facial clefts often require advice from specialists, which is why this telehealth initiative was so significant. The University Hospital of Bamako has been partnered with Caen University Hospital in France since 2001, specifically for the purpose of receiving specialist input on complex facial deformities.

All patient and provider consultations were conducted via telehealth technology (video conferencing, email, phone calls, etc.), where the treatment plan was decided. After the consultation, the physicians at both sites decided whether care should be given in Bamako, or the condition was too complex and must be treated on a future mission trip, where physicians from France would travel to Mali.

Out of the 21 patients triaged using telehealth technology, 16 were selected to be treated during a future mission trip, two were deemed too complicated for any surgery, one was assessed and treated remotely, and the last two were unspecified. Even though the majority of patients required on-site surgery and intervention, telemedicine played a pivotal role in the planning and strategy of the future mission trip.  

Moving Forward

Telemedicine has proven to be an excellent resource for healthcare in developing countries and it provides a way to bridge the healthcare inequality gap between Western and developing countries. The Caen University and Bamako hospitals are not the only institutions using telehealth to innovate the way they deliver healthcare; other companies and organizations are starting to use telemedicine technology as well.

Another innovative organization is Peek. This company uses a smartphone to diagnose and treat eye diseases. In many cases, blindness and vision loss can be prevented if diagnosed and treated immediately, and Peek enables physicians and healthcare workers in developing countries to do just that. This technology has been especially helpful in “remote and low-resource settings”.

For example, Peek technology is in Botswana, where the world’s first national school eye program was established. Childhood visual impairment can lead to poor academic, social, and physical performance. However, with this initiative, Peek has doubled the amount of students attending their follow-up eye appointments. This is monumental, as it serves as early intervention and stops the progression of debilitating eye diseases that can lead to blindness.

All in all, telehealth technology has the ability to solve the health disparities that occur worldwide, and equalize the standard of treatment that people receive. This can potentially lead to higher life expectancy in vulnerable regions, better quality of life, and an overall boost in wellness everywhere. Additionally, telemedicine has the ability to reduce travel costs, and empower local healthcare professionals with the knowledge and tools to treat their patients. Not only is telemedicine an effective tool, but it is a sustainable one as well. With telehealth technology usage increasing in humanitarian efforts, healthcare providers are able to improve the lives of people all over the world.