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Thursday, June 16, 2016

eHealth: Can ICTs bring the doctor closer to patients?

KWAMI AHIABENU 15 JUNE 2016

Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), play an important role in improving healthcare delivery by providing new, innovative and efficient ways of connecting the patient to the doctor. They support quality care delivery by producing better data sets for information and knowledge management, assist in disease prevention and treatment; health monitoring,  diagnostic Information systems, supporting health system management processes including (planning, budget and financial functions) and supporting the emergency, ambulatory, organ donation systems as well as the disaster management systems and blood banks.

What is eHealth? 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), eHealth is the use of ICT for health delivery including treating patients, conducting research, educating the health workforce, tracking diseases and monitoring public health. 

Telemedicine is a specific type of e-Health, where medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications such as two-way video, email, smart phones and wireless devices, to improve a patient's clinical health status. Telemedicine enables healthcare professionals to evaluate, diagnose and treat patients in remote locations using the Internet. For instance, a doctor in Korle Bu can provide care to a patient in Navrongo through a two-way video communication system without travelling to Navrongo. 

eHealth enables doctors to access patients' medical records (including Lab test results) readily, and manage prescription processes seamlessly with pharmacists.  Some health facilities are now equipped with an electronic medical record which is a digital version of typical paper file system in use.  This means a doctor is able to access patients' record from a computer or other devices without going through an endless paper trail. This system means doctors cannot only share valuable information with their peers, but will also be able to improve on diagnosis accuracy and reduce errors. 

Today, telemedicine is a standard medical practice with a large number of countries making use of it. 

The Ghana Health Service District Health Planning and Reporting Tool (DiHPART), is an example of an ICT tool in use to assist district health management teams with planning, budgeting analysis and reporting. 

Another example of ICT application is the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), where there is automation of most of the health insurance services starting from registration where users are enrolled using a biometric system right through to managing claim processes. 

Since mobile phone usage in Ghana is on the rise, the use of Mobile technology in healthcare delivery in Ghana is important. An example is Mobile Technology for Community Health (MoTeCH), which provides pregnant women and their families with time specific information about the pregnancy each week in their own dialect as SMS or voice messages. 

Benefits of eHealth 

The deployment of eHealth comes with a lot of advantages such as: 

1. Patients in remote locations are able to access medical services quickly, efficiently and without travel costs.

2. More efficient use of limited number of doctors in the country who can "see" more patients in multiple locations wherever they are needed without leaving their facility.

3. Delivering high quality care without investment in building, facilities and staffing at remote locations. 

4. Allowing local practitioners to consult with their peers and with clinical experts when needed. 

5. Continuing medical education for health workers can take place without sacrificing time away from their patients. 

6. Provision of timely and secure information not only for medical staff but for patients as well. 

Challenges 

The implementing of ehealth comes with some challenges including the fact that it can be an expensive (running into millions of cedis because of poor telecommunication infrastructure and high costs of internet bandwidth). Also it can be time-consuming on the part of health professionals; distract caregivers from focusing on their primary role and can have disastrous outcomes if health workers are ICT illiterate and cannot manage security, privacy and confidentiality issues.  Further, a lack of policy guidelines or regulations with respect to patients electronic data interchanges and handling of individual identifiable information, undefined ownership of electronic data result in the risk of patients information getting stolen.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, information and communications technologies (ICTs), can help support Ghana's health delivery system. Evidence shows some progress made however, the country has a long way to go in ensuring that new digital technologies have wide reaching impact, in order for patients to receive high quality, cost- effective medical care. Though the country is making some headway with a number of projects, they are disjointed and not properly coordinated to achieve maximum results. 

The use of ICT in health delivery presents the country with new opportunities for accelerating progress in managing the health management information systems. 

This can be achieved by ensuring that right policies, laws and regulations are in place and are backed by a concrete implementation plan, supported by requisite investment and innovations. 

The writer is the Executive Director of Penplusbytes.org