NIGERIA: Telemedicine arrives at Lagos

Telemedicine has finally arrived in Nigeria via a pilot project recently launched at Lagos University. This interactive electronic mode of teaching, research and provision of medical services has been embraced by lecturers, students and patients. Its efficiency and cost-savings have encouraged other universities to consider partnerships with IT companies that provide telemedicine infrastructure.

At a recent session with the media Professor Akin Osibogun, chief medical director of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, said telemedicine employed modern technology to improve medical education and would also be used for communication between medical experts in Nigeria and abroad.

The pioneering initiative is aimed at encouraging exchange of expertise between Nigeria and India, and is funded by the ministries of education, health and science and technology.

Many wealthy Nigerians are finding it difficult to obtain visas for medical treatment in Western Europe or North America. Even when they do get visas, the medical fees are exorbitant and discouraging. The idea of travelling to India is expensive and less appealing.

To solve this problem, a group of medical academics came up with the telemedicine idea and Indian universities were chosen as partners for three reasons.

First, telemedicine is well developed on the subcontinent because of India's strength and advanced expertise in information and communication technologies. Indian expertise is available in Nigeria - in fact, the development of ICT in the country has been supported by the presence of Indian hardware computer scientists and software developers.

Second, medical education in some Indian universities is on a par with the best universities in the West, and their services are not as expensive. Third, there is a tradition of collaboration between Nigerian and Indian medical teachers and experts.

All these factors are positive ingredients for fruitful collaboration between medical lecturers at the Lagos teaching hospital and their Indian counterparts.

"The telemedicine project enables us to exchange seminars with leading hospitals in India. Also we are able to facilitate teaching consultations with experts in India," Osibogun said, adding that specialist medical centres in India would also be able to provide second opinions to Nigerian patients.

Video conferencing, an integral part of telemedicine, already functions at the university. Medical professors in Indian universities present research findings to their Nigerian counterparts and medical students, and vice versa, while academics from both countries deliver lectures.

Osibogun gave a graphic description of the how telemedicine works at LUTH: "On an interactive screen, the patient sees and speaks with his Indian medical consultant. His Nigerian counterparts are also involved in the interactive session.

"Diagnosis of the ailment of the patient is undertaken and solutions are jointly agreed upon by both doctors. The patient is treated here in Nigeria and he does not have to travel to India. That is the beauty of telemedicine."

Meanwhile, an embryo of telemedicine is already in place between 33 university teaching hospitals and other regional hospitals in Nigeria. Mobile medical vans equipped with ICT facilities move between teaching hospitals to attend to cases.

The university doctors give instructions, via ICT equipment, to their counterparts in hospitals on how to carry out, for example, minor surgery. There are plans to replace mobile ICT vans with permanent structures in each of the university teaching hospitals, to facilitate the exchange of information and expertise on medical education.

An Indian communication provider, the IT company Suburban West Africa, has established teleconferencing technology linking up university-based medical experts working in National Hospital in Abuja and the National Sickle Cell Foundation in Lagos. The two institutions recently successfully performed a live diagnostic interactive on a 13-year old sickle cell patient in Lagos.