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UN Boosting Telecommunications to Improve Health in West Africa

The United Nations is helping modernize telecommunications for health workers in West Africa so they can better access information about disease and consult with physicians in remote areas.

The World Health Organization says Africa is lagging behind other parts of the world in treating HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and Malaria. In response, the U.N. Economic and Social Council is supporting the expansion of telecommunications technology for health care workers.

Dr. Stennar Pedersen is the director of the Norwegian Center for Telemedicine at the University of North Norway. He is a consultant for the WHO program known as "eHealth", which he says gives health care workers new ways to better treat their patients.

"Technically it is not a question of where you living on the globe. The benefit is easier access to knowledge, easier access to medical specialists," he said. "It is easier to get people educated. It is easier for people themselves to seek medical information."

Pedersen met with West African health officials at a U.N. seminar on eHealth in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

The Director General of Ghanaian health services Dr. Elias Sory says eHealth will reduce the impact of personnel shortages while making it easier to train existing staff.

"If you get a doctor who is away in the village and has come across a case he or she thinks is beyond him or her, why cannot that doctor be able link up easily with a senior doctor in Korle Bu to get advice on it? So we are not there. But eHealth will get us there," said Sory. "The other thing is that medicine is dynamic. Why cannot we use that to train? We do not need people to all come to Korle Bu in order to be upgraded in knowledge. eHealth can bridge that gap. And, to me, medical education is even one of the most important ingredients of eHealth."

At noon in the outpatient department of Ridge Hospital in Accra, there are still nearly 200 people waiting to see a doctor.

Sory says eHealth should help medical professionals provide care more efficiently so more people are treated in less time.

The program must be tailored to each West African country's health care needs and level of technological development. While there is still much work to be done, Sory says there is no time to waste.

"When you are talking about advancement it is not anything that is going to be like a dream in the skies. Where patients can easily get access to his or her doctor," he said. "We might not be there yet, but until we begin the first steps we will not be there."

The goal of the eHealth program is not only to better connect physicians for diagnostic purposes, but also to encourage them to share best practices and allow participating ministries of health to develop ethical and legal policies covering the collection and storage of electronic health information to ensure patient confidentiality.