Virtual Checkups Are Helping People in Rural Bangladesh Access Health Care
Amid a shortage of 60,000 physicians, technology can help fill the gap.
A virtual medical service is making health care more accessible for people in rural Bangladesh through a system that allows patients to video conference with doctors, reports NPR.
The company, Teledaktar, has medical operators who travel to Golna char, a remote island in northern Bangladesh, and carry a laptop to facilitate the medical consultations, along with a printer for prescriptions. After finding a location on the island with a strong internet connection, they set up a space that allows patients to sit and chat with a doctor, according to NPR.
Although the doctors do not treat serious illnesses or conditions through the service, they diagnose common ailments such as digestive issues, joint pain, and skin diseases, and issue prescriptions, referring patients to local doctors when needed.
A 2017 study conducted in two villages in Chittagong district, Bangladesh, found that traditional healing practices served around 80% of ailing people. It found that the majority of community members with medical issues first approached healers and “only after failure of such treatment did they move to qualified physicians for modern treatment.”
Another study cited a shortage of 60,000 physicians, 280,000 nurses, and 483,000 technologists in Bangladesh. It stated: “With the current level of production, it is very unlikely that the nation will recover this shortage in [the] near future.”
Naveeda Khan, an anthropologist and expert on Bangladesh from Johns Hopkins University, told NPR that people who live in the chars — which are temporary islands that face environmental degradation — cannot easily access medical professionals.
"Child mortality and maternal death have gone down in the rest of the country, but not in the chars. The medical situation is so bad that it really takes away from their quality of their life," she said.
Teledaktar, which started running these virtual consultations in 2018, now has 11 makeshift centers in remote areas of Bangladesh, where people can access medical advice virtually for free, which they may not have access to locally. Dr. Tina Mustahid, the company’s head physician often diagnoses patients from Dhaka, the country’s capital.
"I diagnose them through conversation," she told NPR. "[Many mothers complain] that their children refuse to eat their meals. The mothers are concerned they are dealing with indigestion, but it's because they are feeding the children packaged chips which are cheap and convenient. I tell them it is ruining their appetite and ask them to cut back on unhealthy snacks."
Of Teledaktar’s 3,000 patients, 70% are female. Dr. Mustahid said these medical appointments are also an opportunity for women to address concerns with aging, motherhood, and reproductive health, which they may not feel comfortable doing with a local male doctor.
Teledaktar is one of many initiatives that aim to increase medical access for people in remote areas. Friendship, a local nonprofit, operates floating boat hospitals that provide health services to remote islands in Bangladesh.
In Kenya, the Portable Eye Examination Kit, or Peek, is an app used for eye screenings. Retinal imaging typically needs to be performed using equipment in health facilities.
“This means retinal imaging is often inaccessible to the people who need it most, such as those living in remote areas, some of whom may have already lost part or all of their sight,” the company states. However, its app allows health workers to easily and cost-effectively check for eye conditions which may lead to blindness if untreated.
According to the World Health Organization, rates of unaddressed near vision impairment are estimated to be greater than 80% in western, eastern, and central sub-Saharan Africa, compared to lower than 10% in regions of North America and Western Europe.
Around the world, numerous text-messaging based services give pregnant women in remote locations access to medical support through chat. In rural Ethiopia, pregnant women and new mothers use LUCY – a free and anonymous SMS system to learn about breastfeeding, maternal health, and other topics to support them during and after their pregnancy.