Addis Ababa: Troubled by a difficult case, Asfaw Atnafu decides to seek advice.
He walks into a consulting room at Black Lion Hospital in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa and greets a doctor at the Care Hospital in Hyderabad.
Linked by a high-speed Internet connection, the doctors study X-rays and lab results. Flipping between charts, they use light pens to point out important features. They can see each other in windows on their screens, while medical charts fill the rest of the display.
India launched this “telemedicine” project in Ethiopia last July at a cost of $2.13 million (Rs8.62 crore then). The project links hospitals in Ethiopia with the Hyderabad-based Care Group of Hospitals, one of India’s leading cardiac institutes. The scheme is part of the pan-African e-network, a Rs542 crore joint initiative between the African Union and India launched in Ethiopia last year to improve Internet links and communication.
Asfaw Atnafu (left) uses a high-speed Internet connection to communicate with doctors at Care Hospital in Hyderabad
India is likely to highlight its prowess in information communication technology as a way of strengthening ties at an African heads of state summit in New Delhi on 8-9 April—the first meeting of its kind.
“By using telemedicine, a country like Ethiopia, a Third World country with a problem with funding and manpower, can benefit greatly,” radiologist Asfaw said.
There is just one doctor for every 37,000 people in Ethiopia—sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country and a land where vast distances separate rural communities.
“Rural parts of the country are devoid of medical care. This technology has already helped, but its scope is immense,” said Dr Asfaw.
Under the scheme, the Black Lion, Ethiopia’s only teaching hospital, has also been linked to the remote Nekempte Hospital, 300km west of Addis Ababa.
“We want Africans to share expertise with each other and for areas with few doctors to be linked to hospitals in cities, so doctors there can fill the gap,” said Ratan Singh, project director for the Indian government agency responsible for implementing the technology and training Ethiopians touse it.
Ethiopia’s health problems are mirrored across Africa where doctors and nurses are often overworked and underpaid, villagers have to walk miles to the nearest clinic, and drugs and treatment are often beyond the means of ordinary people.
Aggravating these problems, rich countries are poaching so many African health workers that a team of international disease experts recently said the practice should be viewed as a crime.
The Indian project aims to ease some of these burdens, but it also dovetails with the country’s drive to deepen its links with resource-rich Africa to secure energy supplies and markets.
With ambitious plans to connect Africa’s 53 countries using satellites and fibre-optic links with each other and with India, India hopes to sell more telecoms equipment and services to Africa’s fledgling ICT markets before rival China steps in.
Since the one-year pilot project began, doctors at the Black Lion hospital have used the link more than 50 times to discuss cases with Indian specialists, Dr Asfaw said.
The Care Group is also in talks to extend the telemedicine programme to Nigeria and Libya.
Indian officials estimate that 100 patients in Africa have benefited from the pan-African e-network, which is plugged into 12 specialist hospitals in India. The Ethiopian project uses fibre-optic technology and a satellite hub is being built in Senegal, to be used once the pilot ends.
“Indian doctors have been very excited by this development,” said India’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Gurjit Singh. “They see it as providing the cutting edge of Indian health care and education at low cost to Africans.”
India plans to fund the project and train Africans for five years before handing the scheme over to African countries.
At the Black Lion, patients throng the corridors and rooms, the lucky ones sitting on wooden benches while others lean against the peeling walls and some lie on the floor.
Cocooned from the chaos, the four rooms housing the Indian-funded telemedicine equipment are an oasis of calm. Computer servers whirr in a corner as Indian technicians ensure things work smoothly and chat to colleagues back home.
Hyderabad’s Care Hospital has also trained 12 Tanzanian surgeons, nurses and technicians in the past year, and treated children suffering congenital heart problems free of charge.
“Our doctors will go there (to Tanzania) and make the local surgeons conduct surgeries in their presence. This will boost their morale,” L.V. Rajendra Kumar, who heads business development for the Care Group of Hospitals, said.
Ambassador Singh said India’s involvement in these projects was separate from its attempts to capture a share of the continent’s resources.
“We are the beneficiaries of a relationship between Africa and India that is based on long-term historical friendship,” he said. “Colonization is a one-way street, but I think the India-Africa relationship is most clearly two-way.”