Accessibility, affordability and availability of quality, specialized health care for people in low- and middle-income countries has always been challenging. Patients and their family members living in isolated and marginalised communities of South-Central Asia face numerous barriers in accessing health care services, including geographical challenges, harsh weather conditions, poor transport networks, sociopolitical instability, inadequately resourced health facilities and also experience high mortality and morbidity rates for diseases that can be easily treated. Furthermore, they incur unnecessary financial burden while travelling long distances to access quality health care services in major cities. The AKDN Digital Health Programme in South-Central Asia has played a pivotal role in connecting underserved communities in rural areas with specialized health care services.
The Programme was introduced in South-Central Asia in 2007, when the French Medical Institute for Mothers and Children (FMIC) in Kabul, Afghanistan was connected to the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi (AKUH, K) in Pakistan for teleradiology services. Since then, the system expanded into a network of 34 sites across four countries in South-Central Asia for telemedicine and eLearning services.
The AKDN Digital Health Programme leverages Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to connect health care institutions and health care providers within and across Afghanistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan and Tajikistan. The Programme uses digital health to aid the provision of high-quality, low cost health care to marginalized populations living in remote, rural areas. It aims to provide comprehensive and coordinated care to communities and minimizes the barriers of distance and time while reducing the financial burden on patients, ultimately creating a robust and integrated health care system. Through the Programme, live and store-and-forward teleconsultations and eLearning services connect multiple AKDN and government facilities, through Public Private Partnerships (PPP). Diagnostic services include teleradiology, telepathology and teleopthalmology while live teleconsultation services cover various specialties, including obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatric neurology and psychiatry, among many others.
Health care providers also benefit under the Programme through eLearning. eLearning services aim to build clinical and management capacities of health care providers, enhance their ability to deliver care and manage services and reduce professional isolation. In remote areas, where resources are limited, eLearning can aid continuing professional development when health care professionals are unable to undertake time-consuming and costly travel to attend courses in distant locations.
In May 2017, a comprehensive, hybrid telesurgery solution was implemented in Kyrgyz Republic under the AKDN Digital Health Programme to enable health care professionals in Bishkek and Naryn to perform telesurgeries in real-time and receive second opinions and conduct eLearning sessions directly from the operation theatre. The AKDN Digital Health Programme in Afghanistan is funded through donor funding, which supports patients and the operations of the programme, whereas, digital health operations in Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic are sustained through a patient payment model.
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