The genesis of the Virtual Doctors derived from my experiences working for many years in rural Africa, particularly in Zambia. I witnessed numerous cases of mortality and morbidity from relatively easily treatable or preventable conditions and wanted to help. The story starts many years ago, when I was driving through a very remote area of Eastern Zambia. As I drove along this dusty road, I started to see blood on the track in front of me and as I continued, it became worse. As I was near a national park, I presumed a lion or leopard had killed an animal and dragged it up the road.
I followed the blood for several kilometres and eventually I found a man cycling his bicycle with his wife sitting on the handlebars, resting against him for support. She was heavily pregnant, and the blood was coming from her. I immediately helped them into my vehicle and drove as quickly as I could to the nearest hospital. As I drove I asked the man what had happened. He had taken his wife to the health centre near his village, but there was no doctor available to help them. There is a chronic shortage of medical staff in Zambia’s rural areas, which means that the majority of the population don’t have access to a doctor. The health workers at the clinic could not help him and there was no ambulance or transport available. So he took the only option he could – he decided to try and cycle his wife to the nearest hospital. That hospital was over 80 kilometres away, it was an extremely hot day and she had lost a lot of blood already. She passed away in the back of my vehicle.
Something struck me at that moment: it wasn’t just my feeling of sadness, or shock at watching this young, pregnant woman bleed to death in the back of my land rover but my feeling of utter helplessness and questioning ‘What could I do help? I’m not a doctor, I’m Huw Jones, a guy from the UK, driving in remote Zambia and this young woman has just bled to death in the back of my Land Rover. Surely there is something which could have been done?’ The feeling began to consume me.
As the years went by I shared this story with doctors all over the world, and they all had the same response. They all wanted to help, for free. But there was one big problem: they weren’t in Zambia. The question was how we could connect all these wonderful doctors offering their expertise for free to a clinic, just like the one the Zambian man had taken his wife to, in order to help rural health workers save lives.
There is a revolution sweeping across Africa. Technology and in particular the mobile phone are helping to change each and every person’s life for the good. Where there is mobile phone access now, there is also the internet. And now with ‘Virtual Doctors’, we are harnessing the power of the internet via the mobile phone network, to provide sophisticated, yet easy-to-use state of the art technology, that brings virtual doctors from around the world to rural health centres in Africa, helping to save lives, for free.
The Virtual Doctors system (computer tablets loaded with easy to use bespoke telemedicine software) allows rural health workers in Africa to create concise electronic patient files, with patient condition photos. The software allows for speedy input of data and the health worker is able to choose what type of expertise they need, for example paediatrics or infectious diseases. Patient data is sent through the system to several ‘experts’ in the UK. Doctors receive a notification prompting them to login to their Virtual Doctor portal and assess the patient file, which they are able to analyse, form an opinion, based on the patient data and images provided and respond with diagnosis and treatment advice.